"I don't know. Maybe never. Maybe-maybe it only happens once."
"Oh, now!" I said and had nothing to add. What can you say to a child whosehand has disappeared into a granite boulder and won't come out?
"Liesle," I said. "Can you wiggle your fingers?"
Her whole face tightened as she tried. "Yes," she said. "It's just likehaving my hand in a hole but I can't get it out."
"Push it in, then," I said.
"In?" she asked faintly.
"Yes," I said. "Push it in and wiggle it hard. Maybe they'll see it andopen up again."
So she did. Slowly she pushed until her elbow disappeared. "I'm wavinghard!" We waited. Then- "n.o.body comes," she said. And suddenly she was fighting and sobbing, wrenching against the rock, but her arm was astight-caught as her hand had been. I hugged her to me, brushing my handagainst the rock as I quieted her thrashing legs. 'There, there, Liesle."Tears were wadding up in my throat. I rocked her consolingly.
"O G.o.d in Heaven," I breathed, my eyes closed against her hair. "O G.o.d inHeaven!"
A bird cried out in the silence that followed. The hour that had no number stretched and stretched. Suddenly Liesle stirred. "Gramma!" she whispered."Something touched me! Gramma!" She straightened up and pressed her other handagainst the boulder. "Gramma! Somebody put something in my hand! Look,Gramma!" And she withdrew her arm from the gray granite and held her hand outto me.
It overflowed with a Something that Was for a split second, and then flakedand sparked away like the brilliance of a Roman candle, showering vividly andall around to the ground.
Liesle looked at her hand, all glittering silver, and wiped it on herpajamas, leaving a shining smudge. "I'm tired, Gramma," she whimpered. Shelooked around her, half dazed. "I had a dream!" she cried. "I had a dream!"
I carried her back to the tent. She was too exhausted to cry. She only madea weary moaning sound that jerked into syllables with the throb of my steps.She was asleep before I got her jacket off. I knelt beside her for a while,looking at her-wondering. I lifted her right hand. A last few flakes...o...b..illiance sifted off her fingers and flickered out on the way to the floor.Her nails glowed faintly around the edges, her palm, where it was creased,bore an irregular M of fading silver. What had she held? What gift had beenput into her hand? I looked around, dazed. I was too tired to think. I felt anodd throb, as though time had gone back into gear again and it was suddenlyvery late. I was asleep before I finished pulling the covers up.
Well! It's episodes like that-though, thank Heaven, they're ratherscarce-that make me feel the burden of age. I'm too set in the ways of theworld to be able to accept such things as normal and casual, too sure of whatis to be seen to really see what is. But events don't have to be this bizarreto make me realize that sometimes it's best just to take the hand of a child-aSeeing child-and let them do the leading.
The Last Step
I don't like children.
I suppose that's a horrible confession for a teacher to make, but there'snothing in the scheme of things that says you have to love the components ofyour work to do it well. And that's all children are to me-components of mywork. My work is teaching and teaching is my life and I know, especially in ajob handling people, that they say it helps to like people, but love nevermade bricks build a better wall-loving never weeded a garden and liking nevermade glue stick harder. Children to me are merely items to be handled in thecourse of earning my living and whether I like them or not has nothing to dowith the matter. I loathe children outside of school. I avoid them, and theyme. There's no need for school to lap over into other areas of living any morethan a carpenter's tools should claim his emotions after he leaves work.
And the pampering and soft handling the children receive-well, I supposethose who indulge in it have their justifications or think they have, but allit accomplishes as far as I can see is to pad their minds against what theyhave to learn-a kind of bandage before the wound, because educating childrenis a pushing forcibly of the raw materials of intelligence into an artificialmold. Society itself is nothing but a vast artificiality and all a teacher isfor is to warp the child into the pattern society dictates. Left alone, he'dbe a happy savage for what few brief years he could manage to survive-and I'dbe out of a job. At any rate, I believe firmly in making sure each child Ihandle gets a firm grip on the fundamental tools society demands of him. If Ido it bluntly and nakedly, that's my affair. Leave the ruffles and lace edging to others. When I get through with a child he knows what he should know forhis level and knows it thoroughly and no love lost on either side. And if hecries when he finds he is to be in my cla.s.s, he doesn't cry long. Tears arenot permitted in my room.
I've been reading back over this. My tense is wrong. I used to teach. Iused to make sure. Because this is the fifth day.
Well, when the inescapable arrives- But how was I to know? A person is whathe is. He acts as he acts because he acts that way. There's no profit inconsidering things out of the pattern because there's no armor againstdeviation. Or has there been a flaw in my philosophy all this time? Are thereother values I should have considered?
Well, time, even to such an hour as today brings, has to be lived through,so I'm writing this down, letting the seconds be words and the minutesparagraphs. It will make a neat close-quote for the whole situation.
I was in a somewhat worse mood on Monday than I usually was because I hadjust been through another utterly useless meeting with Major Junius. You'dthink, since he is military, that he wouldn't bother himself about suchfoolishness even if parents did complain.
"Imagination," he said, tapping his fingertips together, "is an invaluablea.s.set. It is, I might say, one of the special blessings bestowed upon mankind.Not an unmixed blessing, however, since by imagination one plagues oneselfwith baseless worries and fears, but I feel that its importance for thechildren should not be minimized."
"I don't minimize it," I snapped. "I ignore it. When you hired me to comeout here to Argave and paid my s.p.a.ce fare to bring me here, you knew myfeeling on the matter. I am not without reputation."
"True, true." He patted his fingers together again. "But you are robbingthe children of their birthright by denying them such harmless flights offancy, their fairy tales and such imaginative literature."
"Time for such nonsense later," I said. "While I have them, they will learnto read and write and do the mathematics expected of them on this level, butby my methods and with my materials or I resign."
He puffed and blew and sputtered a little, clearly hating me and toyingwith the idea of accepting my resignation, but also visualizing the 130children with only three teachers and Earth a four-month journey away. When Isaw that, as usual, he would do nothing decisive, I got up and left.
I went out to my detested ground duty. The children were due to arrivemomentarily, dropping in giggling cl.u.s.ters from the helitrans that broughtthem out to Base from their housing. Their individual helidrops would landthem in the play yard, and after unstrapping themselves and stacking thehelidrops in the racks, they would swarm all over the grounds and I wa.s.supposed to be at least a token of directed supervision, though what childneeds to be shown how to waste his time?
The children came h.e.l.ling down-as slang would inevitably have it-and theday began. I usually made my tour of the grounds along the fences that boxedus securely against the Argavian countryside, the sterilites along their baseseffectively preventing Argavian flora or fauna from entering. More nonsense.If we want Argave, we shouldn't try to make it a Little Earth. And those of usfool enough to people this outworld military installation should acceptwhatever Argave has to offer- the bad with the good. It's near enoughEarth-type that not many would die.
But to get back to the playground. One corner of it is a sandbox area wherethe smaller children usually played. That morning, I noticed some of the olderboys in that area and went over to see what playground rules they werebreaking. As it happened, they weren't breaking any. They were playing nearthe sandbox, but closer to the fence where Argavian rains had washed out thetopsoil and, combined with the apparent failure of one of the sterilites, haddeveloped a small rough area complete with tiny Argavian plants-a landscape in miniature. The boys didn't notice me as I stood watching them. They had begunone of those interminable games-nonsense games-where they furnish a runningcommentary to explain the game to themselves as they go along. There werethree boys. I don't know their names because they hadn't been in my cla.s.s andI never bother with other children. They were older boys, maybe fourth level.They were huddled at one end of the rough area, inspecting a line of tinymetal vehicles such as boys usually have stuffed among the junk in theirpockets.
"And this," said the brown-haired one, "has Captain Lewis' family in it.Mrs. Lewis and the three kids and LaVerne, the maid-**
"What about the new baby?" the redhead asked. Brown rocked back on hisheels and looked at the car, then at Red. "It isn't born yet," he said.
"It might be by then," said Red. "Better mention it or it'll be left out."
"Goes," said Brown. And he half chanted, "This is the car for Mrs. CaptainLewis and the three kids and La-Verne and the new baby-or babies." He lookedover at Red without a smile. "It might be twins."
"Goes," said Red. "Now that's all except the teachers." "There's only onecar left," said the blond-haired boy. "A little one."
"You're sure?" asked Brown. "Can't it be a big one?"
"No, it's a little one." Red wasn't looking at anyone. He seemed to bepeering through his lashes at nothing- or something?
"Goes," said Blond. "Miss Leaven, Mr. Kaprockanze, and Miss Robbin-"
Red glanced quickly over at Blond as his voice dropped. "And Her," he said.
"Do we hafta take Her?" asked Blond. "This would be an awful good time toget rid of Her."
"We can't," said Red. "It's total. Anyway, do good to those whodespitefully use you and persecute you and do all manner of evil against youunjustly-"
"Goes," said Blond. "I learned that, too, but you said it wrong."
"Well, we hafta anyway," said Red. "Now. Ready?" The three boys lookedsolemnly at one another. Then their eyes closed, their intent faces turnedupward and their lips moved silently.
Blond spoke. His voice was shaken with desolation that seemed almost real."Will there be time?" he choked.
"Yes," said Red. "We'll have five days. If we can fair-the-coorze by then,we'll make it. Ready?"
Again, that short pause and then Red put his forefinger on the roof of thevehicle that headed the column and nudged it forward slowly over an almostunnoticeable line that was apparently meant for a road. The two other boysbegan nudging the other vehicles along.
I turned and left them, caught by something in their foolish play: MissLeaven, Mr. Kaprockanze and Miss Robbin-I felt a sudden sick tw.a.n.g inside methat I thought I had long outgrown. Such foolishness to be upset by children'snonsense. But the roll call echoed in my head again. Miss Leaven, Mr.Kaprockanze and Miss Robbin. My name is Esther Corvin. I must be Her.
As is my invariable practice, at dismissal I left school at school andretired immediately to my quarters. I spent the evening playing bridge in theQuarters Lounge with a number of the other civilian employees of the Base and,near midnight, stood in my gown at my window looking out on the Argaviannight-which is truly splendid with three colored moons and a sky crowded withtight cl.u.s.ters of brilliant stars.
Quite uncharacteristically, I lingered at the window until I was shiveringin the heavily scented Argavian breeze. Then I suddenly found myself leaningfar out over the sill, trying to catch a glimpse of the corner of the schoolyard, madly wondering if those vehicles were toiling minutely forward throughthe Argavian night. Something must be wrong with me, I thought. And took ananti-vir before I went to bed.
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I had no idea that the incident would be prolonged. Consequently I was astonished and mildly annoyed to see the three boys huddled in the corner thenext morning. I determinedly stayed away from them, even going so far as toturn one end of jump rope for some of the girls to divert my attention. Myhelpfulness was more of a hindrance. The children were so startled by my offerthat none of them could jump more than twice without missing. Finally, theystood dumbly looking at each other with red-splotched cheeks, so Irelinquished the rope and left them. I drifted over to the corner to see-tofind out-well, bluntly, I was irresistibly drawn to the corner.
"Start across," said Red.
I slopped over to the school building and started a rousing argument in theoffice that resulted in the bell ringing five minutes late. There, I thought.There's your five minutes back.
That afternoon as we watched the children h.e.l.ling up to the helitransthrough the last of the downpour, Miss Robbin looked past me to Miss Leavenand said, "I can't imagine what happened to Leonard. He cried all day for hismother. Imagine, a boy his age crying for his mother."
"This putrid rain would make anyone cry," said Miss Leaven. "He's a cutekid, isn't he? All those blond curls."
Blond said my feet in the squishy orange mud. Blond, blond, blond.
The situation followed me home, a formless, baseless haunting. I caughtmyself pacing aimlessly and sat down with a book. I read four pages withoutretaining a word. I took an anti-vir and an aspirin and started cleaning outmy desk drawer. I finally went back to the troublesome cable I was knitting ina sweater and grimly set myself to counting knits and purls. The evening wentsomehow and I went to sleep in an aura of foreboding.
I was unduly upset when I was awakened by the alert signal some time in thevery early morning hours. As a civilian there was nothing for me to do duringa practice alert except to try to go back to sleep. Actually, if ever a realalert was called and we had to evacuate, there was a plan that was supposed tobe put into operation. I don't think any of us civilians and noncombatants hadmany illusions about what would actually happen under such circ.u.mstances. We'dbe pointed down a road and told to "git," and we'd be on our own after that.We were expendable.
I lay awake, trying to rid myself of the vision of what a person lookedlike after an unprotected attack by the enemy. They have a nasty type ofprojectile that merely p.r.i.c.ks the skin. But then the p.r.i.c.ked place almostexplodes into an orange-sized swelling that, when cut or punctured, which itmust be immediately to ease the unendurable agony, sprays out hundreds of tinycreatures that scatter wildly, digging for hiding holes. And their tiny claws p.r.i.c.k the skin. And then the p.r.i.c.ked places- I turned over and drowsed fitfully until the all clear sounded and then,for the first time on Argave, I overslept and arrived at school unfed andfeeling that my clothes were flung on, which certainly didn't improve mydisposition. It was one of those days that reminded me that sometimes Iloathed myself as much as I loathed the children. During ground-duty time Iwalked briskly around the playground perimeter, feeling caged and trying towork it off. I saw the three boys bent over their interminable game in thecorner, but I avoided them, sick to the bone of school and kids and-andmyself. I was just holding on until the mood would pa.s.s.
But after school I began to wonder about the game, and contrary to my usualpractice, I stayed after school. I was all by myself on the empty playgroundas I squatted in the corner. I looked uncomprehendingly at the scratches, thetiny heaps of gravel, the signs and symbols scrawled on the ground. They meantnothing to me. There was no interpreter to read me the day's journey.
Day's journey? To where? I squatted there, no doubt a grotesque object,with my head between my hands, my arms resting on my knees, and rocked backand forth. Surely my sanity was going. No adult in her right mind would worryover a tiny row of toy vehicles sprawled in the sticky mud of the playground.But I looked again. I finally found the lead vehicle. The whole column hadde-toured around a large rock and seemed to be helplessly bogged down in themud. With a quick guilty glance around me, I carefully patted the mud smoothin front of the column, making a tiny safe highway to bring it back around therock. I started to pick up the first vehicle to clear its wheels of the mud.But I couldn't lift it. Incredulous, I tried again. With all my strength Ipulled at that tiny toy. It might have been part of the bones of the world. Itmoved not a fraction of an inch. I felt a fingernail snap and relinquished myhold. I felt fury bubble up inside me, and grabbing a double handful of mud, Islopped it down on the smooth road I had just made. My breath whistled betweenmy clenched teeth. I felt like hammering the whole thing flat, smashing allthe little vehicles out of sight in the muck-hammering, beating, tearing-!
I drew a quavering breath and stood up. Adults are not supposed to havetantrums. I held my two muddy hands away from me as I went indoors to wash. Ileft a muddy thumbprint on the door latch as I went in. I wiped it offthoroughly with tissue as I left the building, my mind carefully blank of thewhole situation. I couldn't understand or explain it. Hence it should beignored. On this premise I have built my life. Built it-or lost it?
Friday, I paced the playground, trying to forget the far corner. My mindwas seething with questions that kept frothing up like bubbles and poppingunanswered, even unstated. But this was the fifth day. That's all they hadtalked about: five days. After this day I could let my bemused mind go back toits usual thoughts. Then, a little bleakly, I tried to remember what I used tothink about. I couldn't remember.
A flame of resentment began burning inside me. These -these brats had upsetmy whole life. Logically or illogically I was caught in the web of theirnonsense. I was being pried out of my pattern and I didn't like it. Years oftraining and restraint and denial had gone into making that pattern and thosebrats were shattering it. They were making me an ununderstandable andinexplicable thing-a thing to be ignored. I pressed my lips tightly together,my jaw muscles knotting, my heels gouging the soft turf of the playground as Ipatrolled. If this foolishness persisted one moment beyond this day, I'dreport the three of them to the office for-for perversion. That would rockthem good! Them and their families. Let their patterns be shattered. Let theirnasty insides spill out like cracked, rotten eggs!
Sharply I caught myself up, my breath thick in my upper chest. How horriblecan one person get? After all, the knife is not responsible for the gash itmakes-or the blood that stains it. It's the hand behind the knife- The Hand. I felt a little dizzy at such odd, unaccustomed thoughts crowding into my mind-abillowing, shapeless turmoil.
When I felt I had myself under full control, I started casually for the corner. At that moment the bell rang. I saw three heads snap up at the soundand a.s.sumed that they were responding. Consequently, when I got to the doorand had all the cla.s.ses lined up to go in and looked over at the corner andsaw the three still there, I was justifiably annoyed. I delegated Peter to seethat the lines went in order and stalked out to the three truants. My firmstep wavered and softened as I approached the trio. I leaned over them, notcaring whether they saw me or not. I opened my mouth to speak, but it stayedopen-and silent-as I took in the scene.
Something new had been added. A miniature s.p.a.cecraft was balanceddelicately on its fins on a small flat area. All the toy vehicles were pulledup in a circle around it-all but two: the last ones in the convoy. Red wasnudging the next to the last over a flimsy bridge built of matted stems andgra.s.s across a miniature chasm that decisively ended the makeshift road. Thebridge swayed and sagged. The vehicle slid and rocked and Red wiped the sweatfrom his forehead when Blond took over and started the vehicle over towards the s.p.a.cecraft. Red reached his finger out to the last vehicle and made ittoil through the dust up to the makeshift bridge. I suddenly became consciousof how absorbed I had become and my anger flared again. I reached out my footand stepped heavily. I felt the twigs give under my shoe, reluctantly brittle,like living bones. I ground my foot down until the dust scuffed up over thesole. Then I said, "The bell rang."
My voice left no room for argument. After a slight pause, the three boysgot up from the ground. Even then they didn't look at me. Brown looked at Redand said, "Tomorrow?"
"No," said Red. "This is the fifth day. There aren't any more days."
"But how will they ever make it-?"
"It's none of our business." Red hunched his shoulders. "We tried. We faired-the-coorze. It's finished."
"But what will they do?" Blond took a weary step, easing his tired kneeswith his hands.
Red shrugged. "She did it. Let Her figure it out."
"But I like my teacher," protested Blond.
"Goes," said Red. "But we can't help it. No one falls alone, even if wethink they ought to."
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