Sointula was born, she believes, in the eye of a hurricane. Her mother’s water broke as the winds subsided. A rapid delivery ensued, with the baby girl sliding through the birth canal just as the gale shifted, howling from the swamps this time around.
“I’m not here to teach you how to learn,” she tells her class, a couple-dozen willowy girls in a Canadian private school. “I’m going to teach you why.”
Perfection is in a constant state of flux, Sointula (“Tula”) believes. Like the swaying heads of seven sisters, her beloved Goshen lilies, our paradigms are transcendent and fluid, “on the go” she might say. She often does say it. To her Modern Philosophy students, Tula says it a lot.
“The middle grades are so hard,” she tells the big-eyed girls, all daughters of oilmen and lawyers who seek the green and gray shelter of British Columbia for domestic purposes, while their careers involve flaying open the soils in nearby Alberta.
“Eventually most of you will understand why we need to be here,” Tula instructs these children of the oil sands profiteers. “Some of you won’t get it. And that’s why we have a lacrosse team.”
Tula drinks her wine in the evening, listens to her Arvo Pärt and searches her own mind, doubting if even she understands anything. Growing up in the South Carolina swamps was hard. It was hard on all the girls, not just a bookish girl who crenellated her psyche with months-at-a-time muteness, or played “retard” on long bus rides so that the rabble would leave her alone.
“Sally, I think I’ll buy the flowers myself.” This line, the opening line from the film The Hours, is the perfect line to open a movie with. It shows derring-do, chutzpah, a willingness to not let someone else fold your clothes or replace your USB cables. Conversely, it reveals a prior plan to have someone else do it, which Tula believes shows us that Clarissa is not one who makes good plans well in advance. She’s a bit of a dillydally-er.
Storms used to come through the swamps and smack her house as if a giant were holding rolled-up, wet newspapers, an entity that was delivering punishment for the misdeeds of these people and their ancestors.
“Slavery,” Tula tells her space-faced girls, “is an irredeemable sin. Behold!” She produces a dollar bill.
“What’s that?” a sleepy blonde, the daughter of the CFO, asks from her perch in the front row. “Is that American money?” the girl adds.
Tula nods. She says, imagine it’s what you spend. What you use to buy all your necessary items. Imagine, Tula instructs, this is vital to your very existence.
“Okay,” the girl yawns. “Then why do you have it?”
“What do you mean, Stevie?”
“I mean, if it’s mine and it’s so fucking important then why do you have it? Did you steal it from me or something?”
Tula parries. Agile is the mind in flight when it knows where it is going, when it is not bound to any destination other than the perfect one.
There is practically a gasp from the girls, an intake of air from faces etched with perfect scorn.
“You sucky bitch,” Stevie says, “give me my fucking dollar back.”
There was a man, a man who seemed something like a boy at times—like when he was there at Christmas dinners and family gatherings, his floppy hair combed and the corners of his mouth wiped clean of booze and cigarettes. But he was otherwise a man, a man who worked in the corn cribs and drove tractors and saw other men get their hands lopped off in machinery. He was a man who took advantage of young Tula on dark winter nights. He stole from her.
Lonnie. She had watched him get led out of the courtroom with his feet shackled, and then she folded her book (Et tu, Dostoevsky?) and nudged her dreary mum awake.
“It’s time to go, Mama.”
“Uh-huh. They took Lonnie away yet?”
“Yes, Mama. And he looked right pleased about it.”
“I bet he was, girl. He hates to work on the farm. Prison is a better life for him than the farm.”
The master pitted against the apprentice. As old as scriptures, a trope even found on cave walls where primordial art depicted only the necessities of existence. It is the struggle for perfection, for dominance. There is always a battle for order in this chaotic life of ours—Tula’s refrain to a former lover, an emerald-eyed artist from Brooklyn who never stole anything from her, a young gallant who only gave and gave and gave, until he gave himself a heroin overdose.
Lonnie works in prison. He makes compost for the penitentiary garden. He layers it around the beets and the cauliflower, so that the rain won’t immediately wash it away.
“I will never see you again.”
“Baby, we will meet in Heaven yonder.”
Prima facie against that? A lack of eyewitness accounts. Also the fact that her mother knew how much Lonnie took from Tula and the other girls, yet never once uttered a syllable of testimony to the sheriff. She wrestles with these apparitions like Jacob wrestled the angel. She flings their scrawled, soggy letters out of windows and changes her number all the time.
“You will never see your money again, Stevie,” Tula says as class nears its end for the day and the girls sit with stunned disapproval towards a teacher they know will never have what they’re about to get.
Tula comes from behind her desk and strikes a confident pose, an Italian marble.
“Nor will you have anything that is now, or has ever been, beloved or recognizable to you.”
“Oh fuck,” Stevie grins, twisting her hair idly between her fingers. “This is some serious shit, right?”
“In fact it is. You are enslaved for the rest of your natural life.”
The teacher feels her heart stop for a beat as the bell sounds. Every time, a moment of dread. The sneaky girls hanging out in the halls, the boys with hard fists and harder eyes. Low Country bottom. Where if you drown they fill your mouth with heirloom rice and say this will dry your soul enough for Jesus.
Stevie snatches her dollar from the teacher’s desk and tosses it in the trashcan. Tula frowns and shakes her head.
“It wasn’t yours to begin with,” Tula says.
But Stevie is gone, her hair a swoosh in a forming memory, the same departing of Sointula from her vestal years—a golden slash of sky in the window of an old Cadillac along a dusty route on the way to Charleston. (Her cousins would say the only being ever born in a hurricane was an offspring of the devil. Her cousins who cooperated with Lonnie and others like Lonnie until one little girl crawled up into the loft of the hay barn and hanged herself with a grimness that found its way into the newspapers.)
Stevie bounds down the hall with more potential than a new universe. She is laughing, being accused of nothing, her remnants pulsing with more life than all of Tula and her girl cousins put together.
Tula follows, as it is the end of the day. The polished tiles, the Marys in their alcoves with eyes downcast and wearing robes as thick as mountain waterfalls. Stevie prances out the double doors, into the sun and a future that feels very much alive in this mundane present.
The teacher steps out onto the world’s stage, her baggy sweater and swollen eyes a testament to the virtues of the mind. She watches the girls zing into giant trucks and imported minivans. Stevie crisscrosses the planted blooms that keep time for the seasons, until she is greeted by a stern man in a fine cowboy hat, who stops her to bend and whisper in her ear.
Tula remembers that face. The slash that the mouth becomes, the dark holes for eyes, and the teeth bared in fright, in pain, in inconsolable treachery. This girl is in that spiral of hell …
“Stevie!” she calls across the last remaining heads. She jogs down the steps, cuts around one Lonnie (dressed nice for church) and passes in front of another (in worker uniform, a prison Lonnie). She steps boldly through the blaze of golden dahlias and emerges from a mist of time to stand before the girl, the punk Stevie, and her uncle, the criminal, the demon—the defiler of all God’s children (for if you defile one, you defile them all).
“Your notecard,” Tula says, having removed a business card from her purse so as to hand it to her student. Stevie looks at it, turns it over, then turns it over again.
“Thanks, Miss Goddard.”
“Indeed. Afternoon, sir.”
The man touches the fine brim of his hat and opens the door for his victim/niece. He closes it, regards Tula again, touches his hat, clunks off around the massive engine of his Escalade toward the driver’s side.
Teacher and student make eye contact through the closed window. Stevie puts the card against the glass so that Tula can read it: RAPE HOTLINE 800-555-7273.
Sean Jackson’s debut novel, Haw, was published in June 2015 by Harvard Square Editions. He lives in North Carolina and his latest stories have been published in Main Street Rag, The Potomac Review, Niche, and Cleaver, among other literary magazines. He was a 2011 Million Writers Award nominee.