Alim in Herland, Chapter 8

I left Har the day after Terry and the others left the tower. Returning to the plains, I found that my duties now included helping Celis and Ellador learn the visitors' language. The men were going to be let out to meet the populace. We would be among the first to welcome them. Ellador insisted.

During the men’s “stay” in the tower, the mentors created a bilingual dictionary and grammar manual. They must have consulted women in Herland who knew English, though according to Terry, they never admitted being familiar with any other languages.

Celis and Ellador fell on me when I entered the town square at Baile. Marta smiled at their questions (“How do you say—?” “Is this the right word for—?”) and Tyra tried to look pleased.

“Juste is so open to unusual ideas,” she said and for the first time—Terry's complaints about Herland’s conventions sounding in my ears—I realized that she not being complimentary.

I’d told Terry that there were “good” mentors, and he was nice enough not to point out that I’d suggested there were “bad” ones. Mentors like Tyra weren’t “bad” but they ruffled like birds against the freedom of youngsters to go anywhere and do anything. When Terry told me about “high society mamas,” I pictured Tyra twitching over a girl's misstep at a dance, shaking her head over an incorrectly sewn hem.

Of course Tyra dealt with civil projects, not parties. Did that make her any less censorious?

For the first time, I considered that perhaps there wasn't anything wrong with me (other than not being a girl); Tyra was like that, the kind of person who finds the lecture-y note in a discussion of plant-life.

I felt myself stretching, expanding, feeling at home in my own skin. After all, it wasn't as if Tyra could lecture me out of it. And I saw, also for the first time, that Celis treated Tyra lightly—a prickly hedgehog to be placated—while Ellador tensed in her presence, Ellador who wanted to ask questions and find answers and break some imaginary barrier that Tyra placed around us.

Did Tyra make that barrier or was she only using it? How much did Herland society decide even the questions we asked? As much as Terry's society affected him? Like the time he took for granted that I would agree that women couldn't be soldiers, then was perplexed when I found his question odd.

When we finally met officially, I wanted to ask him—okay, mock him, So, Terry, did women build that bridge over there? Huh? Huh? Hey, Terry, how about that aqueduct?

I didn't, couldn't. We were surrounded by dozens of mentors as well as young women who had come to hear the “visitors” talk. Ordinarily, with so many young women around, I would flush and feel awkward, reminding myself over and over and over, Don't show interest. Don't act interested. Ignore them.

I was too busy reminding myself that I wasn't supposed to know Terry that well. I mustn't walk up and slap him on the back and challenge him to an arm-wrestle.

I sat through the mind-numbing question-and-answer session that was only slightly enlivened when a girl from the west region said, “How many people in your country drive cars?” Terry straightened, head turning in the direction of the questioner, but Tyra or some other mentor added a question about “industrial waste” and “pollution,” and Van and Jeff fell all over themselves trying to make the outside world sound not-so-bad when it came to “industrial by-products.”

In Herland, we let our industrial by-products escape into river water—that's how Terry, Van, and Jeff found us. But Herland was not to be shown in a bad light (so we'd all been instructed), and no one asked another question about cars or planes or anything interesting.

I could understand why the leaders wanted to keep back information. If the men had landed in the north—as Terry said they should have—Juste would have locked them up too. Eh, no, she would have made Terry help me with the sheep, put Jeff to work inoculating people, and bullied Van into teaching the youngsters so the teachers could have a rest. She wouldn't have thrown open Har's secrets to them.

And yet—

It annoyed me to see Terry rebuffed, to see his every point “shot-down” (an English term) and ignored as if he had nothing to contribute. If this was how men were treated, I was lucky I'd never told my secret to even the nicest Herland lass.

The unfairness continued after the lecture when the fewest number of girls approached Terry. I went with them—after all, I had a claim. Celis sidled up to Jeff while Ellador was already standing beside Van.

“Mr. Popularity,” Terry said, jerking his chin at Van's milling group of excited girls.

In all honesty, Van's success didn't surprise me. Van treated Herland citizens the way I treated Celis and Ellador. He was maybe a little self-conscious—they all were, even Terry (I sympathized)—but he greeted them with easy respect and interest: friendly-like. It made sense he would gather the girls who wanted to talk and ask questions, discuss philosophy and what-not.

“People like whom Ellador likes,” a girl, Fiona told Terry.

I hadn't considered that, and I should have. I'd seen how the girls formed groups when we were younger, despite our mentors' insistence that we all play together. “Friends” were more than the girls they did stuff with. “Friends” were companions of the heart and mind. “Friends” agreed.

“People also like Celis,” I said, nodding to where she lingered in Jeff's smaller-than-Van group. “So what about Jeff, uh, Mr. Margrave?”

Fiona made a face.

“He's too solicitous,” she said.

Both Terry and I laughed. When we entered the hall that morning, Jeff tried to “help” Celis carry a basket as if she couldn't carry it herself. She looked at him like he'd sprouted horns and fangs. Then she smiled sweetly and patted his arm.

I said, “Celis seems to like him.”

“Oh, Celis,” another girl, Lea, said. “Celis likes everyone.”

There were a few guffaws then, and I frowned because Celis is my companion on the job, someone I defend.

But then another girl, Kal, added, “Celis is no fool. She knows what she's doing.”

“Not like Jacey,” said Fiona. “Jacey's always looking for someone to do her work for her. She'd love a man to carry her basket.”

This was true, yet Fiona saying it startled me. Juste and my mother could be this blunt about another woman's failings, but the women on the plains had always seemed more circumspect—ah, forgiving—ah, nice—to me.

But then, I didn't have that much exposure. Within half-a-year of my arrival in Herland at age nine and three-quarters, I began forestry duty with Celis and Ellador. The rest of the time, I went home to Har. My meetings with Herland girls were confined to planned social events. I never knew they could be so “catty” (Terry's word).

I glanced around the hall again at Van's large group of studious girls, Jeff's group of simperers (other than Celis), and Terry's smallest group of, well, brash girls. My eyes went past the groups to the lurking mentors. They watched from the walls, their eyes flickering. Their eyes lingered longest on those of us surrounding Terry. We all knew the kind of behavior that the mentors “corrected.” In a few seconds, I realized, they would glide across the polished floor and break up our high-spirited cadre.

I turned back. My eyes met Terry's.

“Exactly like a debutante ball,” he said and smirked.

I didn't understand his words.

I knew exactly what he meant.

Tyra was the one to approach, to politely urge Fiona and the others to “greet our other male guests.” I didn't budge. Terry was my friend, the person who played games with me and talked to me and thought it was normal that I wanted to run and wrestle and throw things. I was as outraged at his treatment as when someone hurt Celis or Ellador. I ignored Tyra's raised eyebrow.

Bosom Buddies with Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari
“Alima, don't you think the other men would appreciate your interest?”

“No,” I said. “I think they're well-occupied.”

“Perhaps our visitor would prefer older company. Some of the mentors, perhaps.”

“No,” Terry said good-naturedly. “Alima here is a great hostess, very proper.”

I knew enough by then to know that “proper” was an insult—at least to a boy. I glared at him. He grinned back.

“And she knows excellent games,” he added.

Tyra tutted. “Yes. Alima does prefer the old games.”

That was code—Herland citizens were supposed to prefer new games, the ones carefully crafted to help students discover their potential. We youngsters weren't supposed to favor the old games, the ones that involved dirty limericks and possible scuffling, the ones that often appeared incomprehensible, even tedious to adult eyes.

When I was younger and freshly come to the plains, I led my peers in a game I'd learned from other children in Har; the goal was to break through an opposing group's linked hands. Terry told me it sounded like “red rover,” a game he'd played at school. Pollite was naturally distressed by the lack of clear value (“What is being accomplished!?”)—and because some kids cried though the rest liked it.

I knew Juste and my mother had played the game as children. Wasn't honoring parental role models an important value?

But Herland claimed not to practice “ancestor worship” and now Tyra added: “Of course, Miranda was an Unexpected Mother.”

I felt my cheeks flush—I knew this emotion; I'd battled frustrated anger often enough—and I turned away, ready to stomp off. Terry caught my arm.

“How fascinating,” he said. “'Unexpected' sounds like my mother.”

I heard Tyra sigh. There was a pause. She walked on, tunic rustling.

“What was that about?” Terry said to me.

I hunched one shoulder.

“Not all women in Herland are encouraged to give birth,” said Moadine.

She must have come up as Tyra left. I turned back and ducked my head apologetically. Moadine was one of the principle mentors, and I knew Terry liked her. She was owed respect.

“You mean all that rigamarole about 'appealing' to a 'bad girl' to renounce motherhood?” Terry's voice borderlined disgust. “Taking babies away from girls with too much 'ego' because otherwise they will raise them wrong?”

“Miranda was a good woman,” Moadine said.

She hadn't answered Terry's question, but I was grateful for her matter-of-fact response and felt myself relax. Terry loosened his grip on my arm as he glanced down at me.

“Your mother was Miranda?”

“Yeah.”

“Who died?”

Queen Victoria and Prime Minister Disraeli
“Five years ago. When I was eleven.”

Terry looked from me to Tyra and then straight at Moadine.

“Is this your so-called tolerance?” he said. “Denigrating the name of a dead woman who raised a decent human being?”

“No,” she said and strolled away.

Terry shook his head in irritated admiration. “If I didn't know better, I'd say that woman was a statesman of Disraeli's type.”

I hardly heard him. I was thinking, We won. We got them to leave. Stupid people. So there.

Nobody in Herland would approve of me thinking, much less saying any of that out loud. So I shakily punched Terry's shoulder. And he knew.

Next Chapter 9: Alim