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Chapter Six: Violets and Bulls in the Graveyard

After my long illness, deep changes in my metabolism emerged and the beginning of life-long health issues started to manifest in full force.  For the next three decades, I seldom felt completely well again.  This is typical for people with auto-immune disorders, as I have since learned.  Nowadays, I control it completely with diet, eliminating all gluten, dairy, and most carbohydrates, but back then, everything I ate did nothing but inflame my body more.

Spring in the Blue Ridge Mountains is definitely a magical time.  The variety of flowers and ferns and mosses growing in the mountains simply enchanted me.  I spent many hours at school creating a sort of magic garden of my own, and thinking, thinking, thinking.

My life had two bright spots and one that was very dark.  The housemother of my residence had taken an extreme dislike to me.  I am not sure why.  I can think of no significant interaction between us that created such a situation.  Maybe it had to do with a girl at school, whose real name I can’t remember, but I will call her Flossie because of her amazing blonde curls.

This little girl was one of three others sharing a room with me.  We had our own closet and dresser space and were required to keep everything clean and neat at all times.  Flossie was not inclined to do anything for herself, and because of her great beauty – she literally looked like a doll – she managed to get away with many infractions of the rules.

Mrs.  McNeil, the housemother, doted on this little seven-year-old.  She often took her shopping or to her own home for special sleepovers.  Whatever Flossie wanted, Flossie got.  Except from me.

There was another little girl in our room, a shy and withdrawn child who often lapsed into sign language to communicate out of long habit.  Both her parents were deaf.  Flossie made fun of the signing.  I was in a constant state of war with Flossie to leave the other girl alone.  It is very likely because of this ongoing conflict with Flossie that I came to be the brunt of rather unnecessary cruelties from Mrs. McNeil.

The two bright spots were my classroom teacher, Mrs.  Evelyn, and a little mountain girl named Norma.  In class, and away from the residence, I was the favored one.  I can only say that Mrs.  Evelyn played a guardian angel role in giving so generously of her time and attention.  So to some extent my misery was balanced with intellectual challenge and success.

I was placed in advanced classes, spending several hours a day studying with high school juniors and seniors who were rather curious how they became afflicted with a ten year old.

Norma, a local day pupil whose family lived in the backwoods of the mountains, and whose clothes were little more than rags, was so curious and open-minded that we formed a friendship that I have never, in all these years, forgotten.

Many girls in my dormitory adopted the housemother’s attitude toward me and thought of me as a teacher’s pet.  Norma was an exception.  She was quick and bright and laughed a lot in spite of her obvious poverty.  We sat under a crab-apple tree at the side of the playground during recess talking about our lives and hopes for the future.  Naturally, my greatest hope was to go home, so we turned our minds to plotting.

We decided that something very wicked had to be done to be sent home; but what might this be?  I don’t think we had any real concept, though we had certainly been exposed to wickedness in our short lives.  I thought about this for a few days while picking wild mountain violets to put in bottles of hot water with the idea that it would make cologne.

While I was filling my bottles of violets with hot water in the residence bathroom, the idea came to me.  I knew what I could do to get sent home!  I outlined my idea to Norma during recess the next day.  She didn’t think it would work.  But she was loyal and would help me.  We agreed to meet during free time on Sunday afternoon.  She knew that, as a day pupil, she wasn’t allowed on the school grounds on weekends, but she was willing to risk it.

On Sunday afternoon, we gathered flowers; lots of flowers; bushels of them.  I filched some pillowcases from the linen room at the residence and we stuffed them full of every kind of flower we could get our hands on, mostly violets.  Then, we climbed up the slope to the big concrete dome covering the school well, removed the cover, and one after another emptied the pillowcases of flowers into the water.

My idea was that the water would be spoiled and undrinkable, and they would just have to close the school and send everyone home.

So, I waited.  I was sure that the “bad water” would be discovered at any moment.  An investigation would begin, the water would be declared “unfit,” and home was just a few days away.

As the days passed and nothing happened, I began to worry that maybe the water would not be spoiled, but that the deed would be discovered nonetheless.  I would be forced to confess the wicked deed and be sent home in disgrace.  Well, I wanted to go home, but not in disgrace.

Nothing happened.  Nobody noticed anything.  Of course, I drank lots of water every day, constantly testing to see if the effects of all the flowers we had dumped in the cistern were noticeable yet.

Pure, clear, mountain water flowed in copious quantities from the taps, disappointing me with every drop.

I never did figure out what went wrong with my plan.

Time for plan “B”.  If I couldn’t get sent home, I’d run away!  But Norma wasn’t able to help me with this one.  I thought I would just do it alone.  As it happened, I had an unexpected companion and ally.

Another girl at school, just an anxious to go home, was a “city slicker” from Boston, the object of much teasing because of her “citified” ways and funny accent.  Janice and I decided the best time to make our escape was at the start of Sunday free time so we could get as far as possible before our absence was discovered.

On the designated day, we both stuffed extra bacon and biscuits in our pockets at breakfast to have “traveling food,” and pretended to be sick so we could skip church and make the rest of our preparations.  We packed bundles of clothes to a hiding place in the forest at the edge of the school grounds.  After church, we were accounted present at lunch.  The instant we were released from supervision, we hurried to our bundles to make our getaway.  We set off through the forest in the opposite direction from town.

Now, traveling in mountains is not quite the same as walking down the street in a flat landscape.  Going down can be downright treacherous!  After a few exhausting climbs and a precipitous plunge down a steep slope blanketed with slick pine needles, we came to a large meadow.  And in the center was a fenced graveyard.

Well, I wanted to have a look.  We’d started blithely across the field when we noticed the bull.  We ran.  Of course the bull ran too.  Just in time, we made it to the graveyard and threw ourselves over the fence in panic, panting and gasping for breath, our hearts pounding in our throats.

At last the bull became bored with keeping us hostage and wandered away.  I’d had enough of this adventure!  A nice dinner and a place to sleep away from bulls seemed just the ticket, so I was ready to give up on running away for now.  But Janice wouldn’t budge.  She was so terrified of the big black bull that she was utterly incapable of even thinking about going back over the fence.  I pleaded, reasoned with her, told her we could get back in time for dinner and no one would even miss us, but nothing penetrated her stubborn fear of that bull.

Well, heck, I didn’t like the bull either, but I knew that if we kept our eye on him until he wasn’t looking, we could get half-way across before he would even notice us.  And then, we could probably outrun him the rest of the way.

No dice.  Janice wasn’t buying it.

I told her that if she were too scared to come, then I would have to just leave her there and send someone to get her and we would both get in trouble.  She sobbed and blubbered that she didn’t dare go over the fence because the bull would get her; and demanded that I not leave her alone in a graveyard!

I was pretty disgusted with her.  If she couldn’t get up the courage to cross the meadow, and she didn’t have the courage to stay there while I did it, what were we going to do?  Sit there and rot?  Getting chased by a mad bull was better than sitting there moaning and groaning.  But that was exactly what Janice was doing.

Finally, I couldn’t take it any more.  I told her that she could come or not.  I was going.  But she grabbed hold of my arm, pulling me back, crying and begging hysterically for me not to leave her there alone.  I kept trying to pull away and peel her hands off my arm.  Finally, in exasperation, I slapped her face with my free hand.

She was so stunned she immediately stopped crying and carrying on like a lunatic and for the moment that she was silent, I looked her in the eye and said: “I’m going; come with me, or stay; I don’t care what you do.  You’re nothing but a big baby!” And I was over the fence.

Well, Janice wasn’t far behind me, and I found our way back to school.  It was too late for dinner, and we were grounded for a week for that infraction, but fortunately, we managed to hide and retrieve our bundles and return everything to normal with no one the wiser.

Janice held a grudge against me after that because I’d slapped her.  I should have left her for the bull and the ghosts in the graveyard.  She was sent home in disgrace not long after that for stealing money from another student.  I don’t think she needed the money, so I can only guess that this was her way to get home.  I just never could do it that way.  There is being sent home in disgrace, and there is real disgrace.  And, after I watched the way Janice was “taken into custody” like a criminal, how her name became anathema among the students, and the whole serious deal that she was put through to get home, I lost interest in the project myself.  Besides, June wasn’t that far away.  I could live until then.

Continue to Chapter 7: Trapezes and Dog Days