Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean
“But I can’t whistle!” said Neddi. “My mouth is made wrong. I’ve tried and tried!”
“I can’t whistle if I’m nervous.” Shinna played with her fingers and glanced around. “Or if anyone’s looking at me.” We all looked away.
“I can’t if I’m laughing,” said Kate. A big grin burst out on her face. “And I just know I’ll get the giggles, looking those fellows in the eye.”
Dipti threw up her hands. “Well, dammit, we’ll make a different noise. If you can’t whistle, hiss! Everyone can hiss.”
And they all hissed, like the sound of wind in dry grass.
I put my face in my hands. Dipti threw her hard, skinny arm around my shoulders and shook me. “Oh, if only I lived over the river!”
I wailed. “Then my parents would buy me one of those Gran Sasso Devices, and I would be able to go wherever I wanted.”
“It’d be wonderful, wouldn’t it?” she said. “Just press the button and their filthy words fly right back into their mouths—never said, never heard.”
“Why don’t they just say them again, is what I don’t understand?” said Shinna.
“It doesn’t feel nice, Fan’s sister says,” said Kate, “having that little bit of time run backward, while the rest of it’s running forward all around you. It feels like you’re a sock, she says, being turned inside-out—because it’s running your mind backward too. But it’s better than being shouted at.”
“Well, Melita.” Dipti shook me again. “That kind of handy thing was never made for girls like us, was it? That’s a weapon for rich men’s daughters. And that’s okay. We have no need of it—” She couldn’t stop grinning. “Because we have a plan.”
All the men were outside the teashop next morning. I felt sicker than ever with fear. Everything looked the same: the dusty road with not a soul on it, the closed-up church, the schoolhouse off in the distance. The air was still cool, and I was freshly bathed, and my clothes were crisp from laundering and drying in the sun, and there were the men all waiting, ready to attack. The big one leaned back in his chair. I had never seen him standing; perhaps he had grown into that straining chair, and sat there day and night? The two thin men lounged in the doorway, and Mr. Red Shirt and
Mr. Fancy Boots perched on the edges of the other chairs. They were talking now, but as soon as they saw me . . .
Just run past them. Ignore them, my mother had said. The world is full of those men. They are not worth your time.
Of course they call out to you, said my father. They think you’re beautiful. Which you are. And a beautiful young girl should be complimented.
My mother had smacked his shoulder. You don’t know what you’re talking about. This made me feel hopeful for a moment—would she get angry enough to help me? But then my brothers had come home and my time for my parents’ attention was over. Take Otto’s bags, Melita. Bring Charlie some tea.
Walking closer to the teashop, I thought I saw a whisker of movement up near the church, but now as I stared, there was nothing. I was so confused—did I want my friends to be there or not? Had I been foolish to mention this, to say yes when Dipti offered to help? Would she make it better for me, or worse? Oh, whatever happened would be wrong and awful. I would be crushed and laughed at whether I was alone as usual or backed up by every girl in my class. These men, they didn’t look like monsters, but the words pouring out of their mouths fouled up my whole world, every morning and every afternoon. Girls had no chance against it, young girls like us, from this side of town.
One of the thin men saw me and whistled. The other turned and stared, gave a little whooping noise. I stared at the church. Had they come? Oh, please! Oh, please not!
One head popped out, popped back behind the church
corner. Then two were quickly there and then gone. My heart lifted—and stuck in my throat for a moment, so that I couldn’t breathe. I wanted just to run, to run up and meet my friends and tell them, It’s all right. They didn’t say anything; there’s no need for you to be here. I could cope. I could be strong on my own.
The men began with their calling, with their crooning. Thin One and Thin Two got comfortable against the doorposts. Mr. Red Shirt sat forward in his chair. They threw out little remarks, soft and mocking, about my hair, my school uniform, my legs. If I’d been a rich girl, I’d have taken my little silver Gran Sasso Device out of my pocket right then, and pointed it at them—which would mean pointing it at myself, because it was a two-ended thing. And I would’ve pressed the blue button, and the particles faster than light, faster than time, would’ve burst out either end, and pulled those remarks out of my memory through my ears and folded them back down the men’s throats. Of all the things scientists and corporations had found to do with neutrinos, the Gran Sasso was to me the greatest and the kindest. It was the one I could see a real use for, in my world, in my every day.
I was right in front of the shop now, and they were a chorus in my ear, gentle, awful, saying all their worst things, which they never got tired of calling out at me, at any girl who walked by on her own.
I stopped, my heart thudding so hard I was sure it would show, ba-bump, ba-bump, through my shirt. I turned to face them, which was my signal to the others, the one we’d agreed on. I stared boldly into the men’s eyes, one after the
other. I was sure they could see my fear, in my big eyes and my tight-pressed mouth.
The big man sneered and jerked his head at me. The thin men’s grins stiffened on their faces. Mr. Red Shirt looked at the others to see what he should do, and Mr. Boots crooned on about what he might find under my uniform, then checked whether the big man approved. I didn’t look away; I finished meeting all their eyes and went back to the big man and started again. My classmates were coming, my friends. First I heard their wolf-whistles, their woo-hoos, their hisses—then their shoes pattered on the dusty road.
I took one slow step, then another, toward the men. Thin One and Thin Two, they glanced up the road and looked actually afraid for a moment. I could hear it was a big crowd, bigger than Dipti had called together yesterday. There were boys’ voices in it; boys had come too! Girls and boys pushed in behind and either side of me, and they whistled and hissed at the men.
Mr. Red Shirt laughed loudly. “All these girls for us! Some of them are pretty, too!”
I despaired at his confidence, and at the big man’s easy way of sitting there. The other men would gather courage from it, I was sure, and hurl more words.
But Dipti got in before them. “Some of them are hand-some, too!” she exclaimed, in exactly Mr. Red Shirt’s tone.
“All these fellas for us! Aren’t we lucky?” cried out a boy behind me.
“How about a kiss? Or just a smile?” someone else called coaxingly. “You’d be so pretty if you smiled.”
And everyone else hissed and whistled.
“What do you think you’re about, you kids!” Mr. Fancy Boots jumped up from his chair, and I flinched.
Someone put her hand on my shoulder and called, dreamily, “What do you think you’re about?”
“What do you look like, without that uniform?” cried out a girl to Mr. Boots.
“Bring some of that over here!” That was Shinna.
“Yes, me and my friend would like a piece!” That girl could hardly speak for laughing.
“You’re a hot little number!” said Dipti fiercely.
“Nice bottom, too!” someone piped up at the back. “See when he runs. Oh-ho! Bouncy-bouncy!”
“How about a kiss?”
And one by one they called out all the things the men had ever said, that I’d told them yesterday and Dipti had written down. Against a background of hoots and hisses they called them out. They chanted some of the sayings over and over, and they brought in new ones I was sure I hadn’t told them, because I’d have been too embarrassed. They called out sayings I’d never heard myself, things these men had never said, words so foul I didn’t know what they meant.
“That’s enough!” shouted Thin Two. “You girls shouldn’t talk like that.”
“Girls shouldn’t talk like that!” Dipti laughed.
But they did talk like that, all the girls behind me, and the one or two boys. They said all those embarrassing things. I said a few myself, a couple of the big man’s suggestions—but I said them in that cool, dreamy way we were using, as
if they were song-words or poem-words, or just interesting noises made by birds, or cats in the night, or elephants trumpeting. They filled the air all around, the words I’d tried to push out of my head so often, thinking that no other girl was tormented as I was. Everyone knew them—and some knew worse, so much worse! Everyone who’d heard them wanted to unhear them, to have them unsaid the way the Gran Sasso let you unsay them—but if we couldn’t do that, the next best thing was to throw them back at the men with all their power gone out of them, like shucked-off snakeskins or dead balloons.
And the whistles and the hoots and the hisses—and some growls, even some dog barks!—they were like a nest made of sound. Inside that nest, I was protected right up to my ears. People who were too shy or scared to utter the horrible words, they could hiss; the hissing was a constant rushing all round me. The whistles were on different notes, and so were the calls—all the pretty-pretties and kiss-kisses and where’s-your-lovely-smiles. It sounded beautiful, in a weird, wild way.
I felt like laughing, under cover of all our noise; I felt like crying, but I was too busy throwing ugly words back at the men. I didn’t care what they did; it felt good to sing and shout out these things, from this big safe group. I could almost understand the men, why they did what they did. They must want this wonderful feeling. They must like being in their group, outside the teashop. Whatever horrible things they called out, it made sense that they too wanted to be among friends, gluing their group together better with every call.
The two thin men darted out at us. “Clear off! Get out of here with your dirty mouths, you filthy girls, shames of your mothers!”
We scattered backward, but no one stopped hissing or hooting, and Dipti stood firm and alone there. “Clear off!” she sang. “Get out of here!”
“Dirty mouths!” I called out as we hurried back to stand around her.
“Shames of your mothers!” said Neddi behind me.
“I’d like to look under that skirt,” said a boy, and we laughed, because Thin Two had a sweater tied around his middle that did indeed flap like a skirt.
He stepped forward. He would have slapped Dipti, and she—she stood like a rock—she would have taken it, too.
But the big man spoke then. He just said Thin One’s name, and that killed the fear in the man’s eyes. How relieved he was, to have the big man take over! He spat, instead, at Dipti’s feet. She hissed at him. “Filthy girls!” she caroled as he hurried back to his place at the door.
Then the big man moved. With his lip still curled at us, he hoisted his arms back to put his huge hands to the armrests of his chair; he unwedged himself from between them, and I saw that his tiny feet could take the full weight of him. He cast a last look over the crooning crowd behind me.
“Lovely pair of titties!” one of the boys called.
“Bring me some of that on a plate!” shouted Shinna.
And the big man turned his back on us, and Thin One and Thin Two stepped aside to let him enter the teashop door.
They swaggered and smirked, the Thins, and Red Shirt, and Boots, as they followed him in, but we had seen their fear, we had seen their doubt and confusion. They could swagger all they liked; we knew what they were. We had silenced them! We had made them get up and go inside!
The door closed behind them. Cheers went up among the hissing. Dipti waved our noise down. “I hereby declare, this road is safe for any girl to pass along!” And she came and hugged me.
“You are a wonderful friend.” I hugged her back. Then Neddi joined in, and Suzy too, and someone else behind me, and everyone who was there, all laughing and holding tight. “Everyone is wonderful friends,” I said, squashed in the middle. “All of you!”
Having sung us up the road to the school gate, the boys ran off to their school.
“Those men’ll be there again tonight, of course,” I said to Dipti. “Without you there, they will be just as rude as before.”
Dipti burrowed in her pocket, brought out two folded pieces of lined paper and gave me one. Shinna and Kate waved their paper squares at me.
I unfolded mine. It was a neatly ruled table, filled out in Dipti’s round handwriting. For each school day, she’d written the names of four of my classmates, two for morning, two for afternoon. And she’d put Melita’s Device at the top, and drawn a Gran Sasso there with neutrinos spurting out both ends, each neutrino a star with a little n inside.
“I know,” she said. “We are not a sweet, silver Device that
fits in the palm of your hand—we are a big, messy Device with lots of loose parts coming and going. But we don’t cost anything, and we don’t need a battery. And when we do work, we’re much more fun.”
The bell clanged, then, which was just as well, because my heart seemed stuck in my throat again, stopping me from speaking. I folded the paper, put it in my pocket, and ran after my friends into class.