Alim in Herland, Chapter 19

“Did you hear?” Taila asked one morning as I was stitching up a soldier's shoulder. “A plane came in from the west yesterday, landed on southern meadows above the lake.”

“A plane?” It couldn't be Terry; he would never be so reckless as to enter our territory without pre-arranged signals. It wouldn't be—

“The scouts let it land. It was Van and Ellador—can you believe it!?”

“They're lucky they didn't get shot,” said Kal crisply as she came in carrying masks to distribute to the soldiers returning to the front.

Moadine had placed scouts on the cliffs with weapons borrowed from outside nations and never permitted further into Herland.

“You'd think Ellador and Van didn't realize there's a war on,” Kal said acidly.

“Oh, but that's probably why they came back,” Taila told her.

I said something placatory (“I'm glad they're safe”) and tried not to notice the shrinking of my heart. It was good that Van and Ellador had returned. It didn't mean Terry was—

I took the next trip up the mountain passage with news and supplies for Juste, which supplies included rifles. Juste paid no attention to Herland's strictures on weapons; if any invaders broached Har's borders, she wanted her women to shoot and to kill.

Celis was visiting, as she often did without Jeff or Rosalind. Celis liked being a mother; she also liked to temporarily stop being one.

“Jeff's enough parent,” she announced with a shrug. “He coos and praises and encourages Rosy to play official games. He's a devotee of Herland's system.”

“As long as she thinks for herself,” Juste said robustly, and Celis rolled her eyes.

“Rosy's a brat who has her father wrapped around her finger,” she told me after Juste strolled out of Har's storehouse. “I play the disciplinarian, but sometimes I'd rather let someone else like Tyra do it. Believe me, when she's old enough, Rosy will go her own way.”

“Has she met Van and Ellador?”

“Sure. They're going to try for a child.”

“How are they?” I said, storing the rifles I'd brought into the wooden racks. I locked the bar that held them in place.

Do they know where Terry is? Do they know if he is alive? Do they care?

“Full of ideas,” Celis said. “Ellador's giving lectures all over Herland about their tour of the outside world.”

“Does she talk about the war?” I set the ammunition in the top cupboard above the barred windows—I was tall enough to reach it now.

“No.” Celis stretched out in the opposite windowsill and kicked up her feet. “She talks about the trip that she and Van made around the world. The conditions. The women. She claims women out there don't wish to improve the world or can't see that it needs improvement or something. They are stuck in man-made systems.”

Edith Cavell
I turned and stared at Celis who shrugged.

“Has Ellador heard of Edith Cavell?” I said, striving to sound level-headed and rational. “Nurses in field hospitals? Women in the munitions factories?”

“Those are all war examples, Alim,” Celis said gently.

“Those women are choosing, aren't they? They're making decisions about what they support? They're sacrificing money and time and their lives? Edith Cavell was executed!”

“For a war that Ellador believes was preventable.”

“Anything is preventable,” I said. “Any system can be dismantled and destroyed and cast down, even Herland's. What does pointing that out accomplish?”

“Change. Progress. In the long-run, you understand. For the good of humanity.”

“Bullshit,” I said.

I'd picked up bad habits from the soldiers. Celis didn't flinch.

“Oh, Ellador's lectures aren't so bad,” she said. “Pretty-sounding rhetoric. The whole world crafted into theory and argument. But they're like that, you know: Van and Ellador. You know that.”

Sequel to Herland
I did. And I suppose Terry would say he was fighting for people like Van and Ellador, allowing them the privilege of a safe home where they could argue their theories and present their Reasons for Everything.

“They printed a book,” Celis said. “With all their ideas.”

“Send me a copy.”

Better to skim the book than attend one of Herland's endless lectures.

A week later, Ellador came to see. I was restocking shelves with antiseptics when she burst in the clinic storeroom, once a scullery.

She said, “Oh, Alima. Alim, I mean. Look at you.”

I was nearly six feet by then, not as wide-shouldered as I would be by the end of the war, but then I was never as big a chap as Terry. I still only shaved twice a week. But. Still. I was eighteen going on nineteen, and I looked it.

Ellador looked sophisticated. She was wearing Herland dress, but her hair was coiffed like the women in Van's dictionary. Of course, she was older. Of course, she was more experienced.

I hugged her because I couldn't not. She'd been my friend and companion and defender while I was growing up. I had to remember that.

She helped me stock the remaining shelves, then sat down and shook her head at me in wonder.

“You look a proper man. Van said that is the right thing to say.”

“I suppose. Have you heard anything about Terry?”

“Only how you two tricked the rest of us. Oh, you mean— No, we haven't. I know he's missing but—” Her shoulders hunched. “I hate talking about the war. I hate it, Alim. So much hatred and destruction and for such selfish reasons.”

I didn't disagree. I got up to make tea, and Ellador accepted a mug.

“But you are doing such fine things here. Men are so noble,” she said with flushed enthusiasm.

“Terry's idea,” I told her. “And he was right. I'm helping people.”

“Yes. Yes, you are.”

“I read Van's book, the one about your trip around the world. How everything out there is broken and hampered and stalled.”

I tried to keep my voice level, but she heard the note of disdain. She cocked an eyebrow and waited, sipping her tea.

She said coyly, “I don't want my ideas to upset you—”

“Cut it out, Ellador. I'm not your husband.”

She eyed me, then nodded.

She said straight-forwardly, “There are many things that need to be fixed. Many injustices.”

“But your explanations for those injustices don’t take actual behavior into account,” I said. “Your so-called progress would deny the human condition.”

“If the ideas behind a country or institution are wrong, they must be fixed, rethought, retried.”

“But countries and institutions aren't ideas. They are people, individual members of society. With all their idiosyncrasies and flaws and personal desires. And beliefs. I've met religious soldiers, Ellador. Catholics. Protestants. Jews. British Muslims. I've sat by their beds as they talk about their families and their God. You dismiss religion in your book. You treat it with such contempt—as little more than a civilizing influence. And yet it sustains them—”

“I don't doubt that. People can be very good. But you must admit that the ideas behind the religious thought are corrupt, inherently problematic. The patriarchal Father with his stern voice and demands of obedience.”

“That's not what they believe. Not exactly. You're trivializing a larger passion.”

“Which is rooted in an inability to question.”

“No, Ellador.” I slammed my hand down, then stood, shaking, and paced to the door. I took a deep breath and came back. Ellador appeared patient and long-suffering, and I frowned at her imperturbability.

I had an inkling then that nothing I said would change her mind.

I tried anyway—I'm sure she felt the same:

“People aren't a collection of theories, Ellador. They aren't some overriding system. There are theories out there about how people should rise up against those who keep them down, should revolt against debunked traditions. But all theories like that come after. The theorists look back at things. They don't experience them. The soldiers don't believe in your theories, no matter how clever you sound. They believe in—have faith in—something emotional or intellectual. Traditional. Personal. And your authority can't override their beliefs—unless you plan to 'fix' their minds.”

“But Alima—Alim—I have seen unjust systems out there, corrupt industries that control everything from the so-called free press to the industry's workers. Government institutions that print propaganda. Religions that take money for profit. Traditions that bind little girls' feet. Policies that thrive on old ideas, such as slavery. Men who preach against other races. Where else can we begin but by changing how people think? Re-educating them?”

Maybe I would have agreed with her two years ago. I would have been as appalled by the “injustices” she listed as she was. But here's the thing about true education: the perfect, trite theories no longer fit.

I'd read newspapers and books brought in by the soldiers. I’d help heal them. I'd talked to them.

I said, “I don’t like the injustices either. But who does the re-educating? Haven't you noticed, Ellador, how the so-called theories and policies you praise so often come down to force? Eugenics. Segregation. Your fancy progressive philosophers are not entirely trustworthy.”

“They see the need for reform, better working conditions, cleaner cities, more charity,” she insisted. “New ideas. Experimentation. Trial and error. The problem is that nations stop—they get stuck on one notion—they go to war!”

“They make it impossible for the individual to operate, to move, to dream, to leave. Where else have you seen that?”

“Oh, no, Alim. Herland taught you, didn't it? You're here now, helping others because—”

“Because of Terry, Ellador. Because a man with bourgeois, petty, so-called chauvinistic ideals—ideals that you belittle—pulled the best out of his upbringing and encouraged me to do the same. And yet, according to you, he has nothing to offer. No one has anything to offer who doesn't fit the theory of progress.”

“I think people do wonderful things, but they could do better! They can learn—”

“They learn because of their dreams. Because they accept a challenge, see a solution, query the non-competitive, rational, acceptable order of things.’. They don't learn in a vacuum, Ellador. And they don’t learn on demand.”

She threw up her hands and sighed.

“You let me get away with less than Van,” she told me. “He's nearby,” she added and looked about wistfully as if he might come in at any moment.

I sighed too because Ellador did adore Van, and that was individual and real, more real than any of her theories.

I said as if it were a concession, “Herland did raise me well.”

I was healthy. I could read and write. When Terry arrived, I'd been ready to tackle his existence, to take on the wildness of the outside world. My upbringing wasn't all bad.

Van came in a few minutes later while Ellador and I were exchanging news about various friends (we'd retreated to the safe and normal world of gossip). He gaped at my height (I was taller than Van now), then laughed and hugged me.

“I am so impressed by what you have done here,” he said in that absolutely faultlessly friendly way that Van has.

As they were leaving for Herland—in Van's plane (flight plan approved)—Ellador said, face faintly crimson, “You know we want to try for a baby. A boy, perhaps.”

“You'll be a wonderful mother,” I told her. “You helped raise me.”

And I meant it. The world Terry wanted to give me was a world of flaws. There was a place there for Ellador and Van, who were also flawed.

Like me.

Next Chapter 20: Terry