The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
By Anton DiSclafani
I was assigned to Augusta House. All of the cabins were named after the founders’ relatives—we had Mary House, Spivey House, Minerva House. Mr. Holmes led me and my father through the Square, but I trailed a foot or two behind so I didn’t have to speak. Mr. Holmes’s stride was enormous; he was tall and lanky and towered over my father, who had always been on the small side. Sam, who had shot up like a weed over the past few months, was taller than him now. Sam might be eating at the moment, or maybe dinner was done. Perhaps he was still wearing his day clothes: shorts and a button-down linen shirt, an outfit chosen to make the sun bearable. We never wore sleeves in the summer, but in Atlanta every man I’d seen had worn a full suit, despite the heat. Mr. Holmes wore a suit now, had emerged with Father from his office wearing a jacket.
My father walked quickly to keep up and wanted to leave his hands in his pockets, but kept removing them, instinctively, for balance.
I wondered if I would recognize the back of Father’s head in a crowd. Surely I would recognize Sam’s, his coarse, thick hair that Mother coaxed to lie flat every time she passed by, drawing a hand over his head by habit.
Mr. Holmes opened the door to Augusta House and walked through first, but before he did he turned and gave me a little smile; I could hear him tell the girls they had a visitor, and when my father and I walked in a moment later, five girls stood by their bunk beds, hands behind their backs, motionless. It was almost dark now, and the light from a wall sconce was the only source of illumination in the room. I thought it odd that Mr. Holmes, a grown man, had entered a cabin full of girls without knocking. But they had known he was coming. I wondered what else they knew.
“This is Theodora Atwell, she has come to us from Florida.”
The girls nodded in tandem, and a panic seized me. Did they do everything in tandem? How would I know?
“And this,” Mr. Holmes said, starting with the girl on the left, “is Elisabeth Gilliam, Gates Weeks, Mary Abbott McClellan, Victoria Harpen, and Eva Louise Crayton.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, and all of the girls inclined their heads slightly. Elisabeth, the first girl, broke her stance and broke the order, and I was so grateful. These were just girls, like me. She tucked a piece of ash-brown hair behind her ear and smiled; her smile was crooked. She seemed kindhearted. I liked her blue eyes; they were wide set, like a horse’s. She would be my Sissy.
I wondered, in that dimly lit cabin that smelled so strongly of wood, what had brought each girl there. Or who had brought them.
We each had half of a bunk bed, a tiny closet, a washstand, a desk, a vanity. Our house mistresses roomed with each other in another cabin; we girls were to be left completely alone. I took my father’s hand, which hung by his side, and hoped the other girls would not think me childish. His grip surprised me, and then I knew it was true, he meant to leave me here. I tugged my hand free of his and stepped forward.
“I’m pleased to be here.”
My father kissed my cheek and pressed me to him in a sort of clumsy half hug; now I was embarrassed instead of sad, all these girls watching. Mr. Holmes turned his head politely. Then they left, and I stood there alone in this room full of girls and felt terrified. I was accustomed to the feeling of fear—it threaded itself through my brain each time I tried a higher jump—but that fear was accompanied by a certain exhilaration.
Now I watched the unreadable faces of all these girls and they watched me and I felt frightened in a way I had never felt frightened before. There was no place to go but here, no one to take comfort in except myself. I started to cross my arms in front of my chest but then an instinct told me to stop: I didn’t want any of these girls to know I was scared.
“Theodora?” the pretty girl with the full figure asked, and I remembered her name. Eva.
“Thea,” I mumbled. But I wasn’t from a family that mumbled. I cleared my throat. “Thea. A nickname.”
“Well, that’s better,” Eva said, and grinned. “Theodora’s a mouthful.”
I hesitated—was she making fun of my name? But then she patted the bunk beside her. “This is you. You’re my bottom.”
Sissy laughed. The sound startled, then comforted me. “Have you ever slept on a bunk bed?” she asked. “I have the bottom, too. It’s the worst, but you’re here so late.”
I pointed at my trunk, which rested at the foot of my bottom bunk; pointing was bad manners, now the girls would think I had none, but poor manners were better than explaining why I had come so late.
“My trunk’s already here,” I said.
“One of the men brought it,” Mary Abbott chimed in. Her voice was fragile-sounding.
“But not the handsome one!” Eva said, and Sissy laughed.
Gates turned from her desk, where she had been writing something—a letter? I wondered to whom—and I could see she did not approve.
“Oh, Gates,” Eva said. “Don’t be so serious. It’s just chatter.” Eva turned to me, languidly; she moved about like she didn’t have a care in the world. “There are two men here who do chores. One is very handsome. And the other . . . you’ll see.” I felt my face go hot, and quickly walked to my bunk so the other girls wouldn’t see. I blushed at the drop of a hat. I busied myself with my trunk, and after a moment I noticed that everyone was changing into their nightclothes. I changed out of my clothes quickly—no other girl had ever seen me naked. Only Mother, and she was not a girl. I was careful to hide the handkerchief as I disrobed—the other girls would think me childish if they saw I’d hidden a piece of fabric from my brother beneath my clothes. Or worse than childish: odd.
Our nightgowns were all the same—mine had been laid upon the bed—soft cotton shifts with V-necklines, a mid-calf hemline, YRC embroidered over our left breasts. Over our hearts. The nightgown I had brought with me was high collared, ankle length, ruffled at the wrists. It would have given me away immediately. Mother had told me that I’d be wearing a uniform, so I didn’t need to pack much; the idea had made me furious back home. I was going to be treated like everyone else! But now I was glad. I had not known my nightgown was all wrong.
The girls left in pairs—Eva and Sissy, Gates and Victoria—until only Mary Abbott and I remained. I had no choice but to follow. I didn’t want to ask where we were going, but I did.
“The privies. I know what you’re thinking, how can we not have a toilet in our cabins?” she asked. She dropped her voice conspiratorially: “They think it’s good for us.” Her accent was very Southern. Mr. Holmes had an accent, but I couldn’t place it—he spoke in clipped tones, the opposite of how everyone in Augusta House spoke. I didn’t have an accent, not compared to these girls. “But at least there’s indoor plumbing. And running water for our baths.”
I nodded at Mary Abbott, unsure of how to respond. I’d always had indoor plumbing, and running water.
Eva and Sissy passed us on their way back to the cabin, along with pairs of other girls from other cabins. We looked like ghosts in our nightgowns, and I hated this place, hated these girls, my first clear, unconfused sentiment since I’d arrived. I wrapped my shawl tighter around my shoulders and hated my mother.
The privies were spotless—I was grateful for that. I didn’t wait for Mary Abbott, rushed back to the cabin without once meeting anyone’s eye. When we’d passed Eva and Sissy, I knew by how they smiled that Mary Abbott was not someone I wanted to align myself with. I was already in bed when Mary Abbott came in; she looked at me for a long second, wistfully, I thought, but that was unreasonable, she’d known me for an hour and then someone entered the cabin, too young to be a woman, too old to be a girl. She barely looked at any of us. When she saw me, she nodded—“Theodora Atwell. Glad to see you’ve settled in.” And then she turned off our lights.
“Good night, girls,” she called as she left the room.
“Good night, Henny,” everyone called back, in unison.
The girls said good night to each other then, in sleepy whispers; I thought they were done when Eva spoke.
“Good night, Thea,” she whispered, and all the other girls followed suit, my name whispered five times, and it seemed astonishing that I knew which voice belonged to whom; it seemed astonishing that already these girls laid claim to me.
The last girl I had known was Milly, a neighbor, and she had moved away years ago. She carried a doll with her, always. I thought she was boring, which in my family was least what you wanted to be. Other people were boring; the Atwells were interesting.
Sam liked Milly, though. She would watch him tend to his terrariums, help him carve branches of trees into a more manageable size, listen with interest as Sam explained how his huge cane toad transmitted poison from the glands behind its eyes. Only Sam was able to pick the toad up; when I tried, it puffed to twice its normal size. Sam had a carefulness about him that animals trusted. People, too.
I did not like Milly there with Sam when I returned from a ride. And so I stole Milly’s doll and buried it behind the barn. She never came back.
Sam knew what I had done. I had been cruel, and Sam hated cruelty. I think he did not understand it, the impulse to harm another living creature. It’s why he couldn’t ride. The thought of pressing a spur into a horse’s tender side, or lifting a whip against a dumb animal—well, Sam could not imagine it.
He was ashamed of me, and I was almost ashamed of myself, but Milly was quickly forgotten, ground into the dust of a child’s memory.
A girl muttered something nonsensical, talking in her sleep.
“Shh,” Gates said, “shh,” and the muttering stopped.
In Atlanta, my father and I had slept in separate rooms. We’d never traveled alone before, so I didn’t know how to interpret this, but in my great big room I’d cried, and then slapped myself for being so silly and desperate: this was nothing, I told myself, take hold of yourself. I’d fallen asleep to the noise of cars underneath my window, wondering if my father heard the same in the room across the hall, wondering if he was even awake to hear it or dead to the world.
The cars outside my window had made me feel less lonely, though that was silly—the men and women in those cars were no friends of mine.
I wondered if Sam was still awake now, listening to the Emathla crickets. I wondered what else he had heard, today, what else he had done. Mother would still be awake, reading, listening to the radio; Father would still be driving if I had to guess, twisting carefully through the mountains.
I thought of my cousin, Georgie, and wanted to weep, but I would not let myself. I had wept enough for a lifetime. Two lifetimes. Three.
Excerpted from The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani, published in June by Riverhead Books. Copyright © 2013 by Anton DiSclafani. All rights reserved.