Van records the shock and horror of that revelation. It was the European War, the nearly unpreventable series of events that snowballed from assassination to invasion. The breaking of treaties. The declaration of hostilities. And then Belgium's borders were breached, and Great Britain entered the fray.
I went to France to meet friends of mine in the British army. Van and Ellador followed, the fools, all for the sake of Ellador's “education.” She insisted I take her up in the plane to view the destruction of trench warfare—this was in the lull between battles in 1915. I protested, but Ellador insisted, and she's as difficult to say “No” to as Alim. Van told me later that Ellador cried that night over the unimaginable destruction she saw. Of course, she did.
I was planning to offer my plane, my abilities as a pilot, and my extremely rough French to the RFC. I had connections—the aviation world back then was not so large—and I could hardly go home and settle back into the business world, not when it seemed likely that the war would not end as rapidly as the wishful politicians were promising.
I encountered British and French expeditions as Alim said I would. Their members queried me closely about the war in Europe and made their own plans. I equipped myself and started up the mountain passage. I'd made an initial pass in the plane over where I understood Har to be, so I was not surprised when Alim met me half-way up my ascent.
He was already three inches taller, nearly my height. His shoulders had broadened, his frame expanding to encompass all that cheerful energy. He waved and shouted, then heaved off his backpack to scramble down the path to hug me.
“You came! You came!”
There was no way to soften the blow.
“I'm not taking you with me,” I said.
He didn't seem to hear. He talked about seeing my plane, about his preparations “for months and months” beforehand, about his hurried goodbyes in Har that morning. I held his arms and studied the mobile face with its faint beard (he would be using a razor at least once a week now) and knew how much I'd missed him.
And how much I absolutely was not going to take him with me. Not now.
“Alim,” I said, and his eyes dipped, dimmed.
He'd heard me.
He said, “You promised.”
“The countries out there—in the West—are at war. It's a bad war, Alim. It's old and modern all at once. It's destroying everything. It could destroy everything.”
“Even in America?”
“It's not there yet.”
“I'm going to fight, Alim, for the Entente Powers.”
“I can help.”
“Yes,” he insisted.
“You've said—how many times have you talked about men being honorable and courageous and valiant—?”
“It's not your fight.”
“I can make it my fight. You're the one who said not to stay in the 'nursery,' not to be coddled.”
I shook him gently. “These countries have nothing to do with Herland.”
“I'm going to be an American.”
|Sinking of the Lusitania|
He was shaking his head.
“Here,” I said urgently. “The war could come here. Do you want Herland invaded? By anyone? Do you want your people bombed?”
He was a man, not a child jumping around with his hands over his ears. He could help defend Herland, keep its borders strong. He could arrange for Herland to have lookouts. He wouldn't be alone. If I'd learned nothing else in eighteen months, I'd learned that there were Colonels and “brash girls” to help him. The women of Herland could protect themselves.
We stayed the night in the mountain pass. It was like our meetings at the base of the tower—only much colder, of course (no swimming competitions). I started a fire, and we ate from Alim's pack (he had fruits and bread and roasted lamb). I kept my arm around his shoulders as he took in his disappointment, then listened to me explain the war that was growing, stretching, and looming over the world.
He was ready the next morning to take on the role I'd proposed. In fact, he requested that I not leave immediately as I'd planned, that I wait in the village below the pass until he could bring Juste to meet me, to learn from me directly what was happening in Europe and now Africa.
Juste came—a wiry woman with a mane of curly red hair—and with her, Moadine, who greeted me calmly. Her eyes flickered with amusement between me and an abashed Alim.
“I think she always knew we were lying,” he whispered to me. “She wasn't even a little surprised when she saw how male I've gotten.”
I was thinking that Moadine likely knew a great deal more about the world than the subterfuge of one overactive boy. She and Juste bent over the newspapers I'd brought and asked such precise questions about the European conflict that I began to wonder if Van and Jeff and I had ever surprised her.
Were all the mentors hiding a deeper agenda?
No, I decided. Moadine had always behaved differently than the others: observing more than tutoring, querying more than remonstrating or classifying. As if she had a specific mission, given to her by her queen perhaps.
“Is Ellador your spy then?” I hazarded.
“Not wittingly,” she said good-humoredly, which was as good a confession that Moadine had spies in the outside world.
I wondered for the first time what else Alim's mother had been doing beyond the borders of Herland, other than getting pregnant.
I said civilly, “How is Celis?”
“Blooming. The baby is due soon. Jeff is, ah, engaged in fatherhood.”
I gathered that the women of Herland wanted Jeff to use his practical skills as a doctor, but Jeff was too busy doing useless things like planning a pageant about Parenthood. I saw Alim smirk and surmised that Celis—who wrote Alim weekly— found the whole dispute endlessly amusing.
“I'll come back to get you,” I told Alim as I gathered my belongings. “We'll still make that final trip together.”
He trekked out to the field below the village. He waved his hand as the plane lifted me into the air and bore me back to war.
Next Chapter 18: Alim