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Those Golden Reeds
Her name meant ‘tree’, and she was probably the most perfectly named person in the world. Ilana was always a tall girl, taller than me in all my ages, and had bronze skin that in our youth was good for blending in with the forest but, when older, would have made her a favorite of the men. She managed to keep her caramel hair shiny and long and soft even when my mother made me cut my blonde locks, but I never resented her for it. And she was thin, so very thin. I wonder now if that thinness was healthy, but we were young, and hadn’t yet been introduced to the self-hating world of eating disorders. We ate ferociously, long picnics after even longer afternoons spent running barefoot across pine needles and moss. Over the summer our feet would become tanned and hard like how we imagined Native Americans, and then the school year would soften them while we were forced to wear shoes. We were a pair of reeds, golden reeds, swaying in the hot dry air of our swirling sun. Months of spending all our time creeping through the forests together taught us the animals’ languages, and often we swam in rivers and imagined Miriam laying her baby brother Moses down next to us with a whispered request to keep him safe. People would say that we were ‘two sides of the same coin’, but Ilana and I disagreed. We were the same coin. God had made one soul with two bodies, I one and she the other. Our differences in looks and wealth were no matter, because we were one person. Our mothers could pry apart our bodies, but our minds and hearts were always pressed up next to each other. I never lived a day without feeling the warmth of her presence pushed against mine like the softest blanket wrapped around my ribs. Her pain was my pain, my joy her joy, our love incomprehensible. We knew what the other was thinking, feeling, needing, even if we were miles apart. We needed no blood promise, no best friend bracelets, because the idea of not being together never crossed our minds. In our childish world, such separation was impossible. And then, Ilana disappeared.
“JOELY! JOELY! Its dinner, come inside!”
“I’m doing my homework, Mom!”
“Yes, and I’m the queen of England!” My mother picked up my books and hustled me through the screen door. “A self-respecting girl would do her homework inside on a desk, not on the porch steps. On my honor, you was reading them books ‘gain, weren’t you, girl.”
“Those books, mother, those books.”
“There, now you good as said it, didn’t ‘cha. No more ‘o that readin’. Come eat your potatoes.”
I despised our kitchen. It was small and cramped, hardly enough room for my mother and me, let alone my little twin brothers too. Everything was wood, so if a girl wasn’t careful, she could get a splinter anywhere. It was two summers after the day I lost my soul, I was twelve, and yes, I had been reading instead of doing my history homework. My brothers, Tobin and Adlai, pushed their way to the table. They were fighting, like always. There was a tense moment when they both tried to sit in the same chair, but then Tobin shoved Adlai into the next one over and we all relaxed. Last time there was a chair fight mother’s china pot had gotten smashed. I brought the chicken slices to the table and served the boys before they could kill each other with the knife, then took my seat while Mother brought out the mashed potatoes and sauce. We said Grace, a very lengthy one tonight, with lots of barely hidden digs at my ‘false book idols’, and ‘disobedient ways’, then were allowed to get up from the table to get drinks. The boys switched seats on returning, then started to fight over whose chicken belonged to whom, then Mother smacked one of them- I’m not sure which- and everyone settled down again.
“Mama, if you keep hitting the boys around like that the people from the state will come and take us away, you know that right?”
“What crazed things you think, girl. Now, where’d ‘cha get that one? Ain’t ‘gainst the Law to discipline your own children.” She said ‘law’ like some people said ‘Black Plague’ or ‘Tax Evasion’. Mama’s idea of The Law was church on Sundays and welfare. The Bible was her real rule book.
“Yes it is. You can’t hit the boys anymore, or you’ll get into a lot of trouble, really.”
“You read that in one of them books?”
“Those books, Mama, those-“
Telling Mother that it was indeed one of my books where I had gotten my information would be a death sentence. She didn’t believe in reading, and being found with any book except the Bible was cause to bring down holy fire. Should I tell her the truth and be sent away from the table, or pretend l made it up? I hesitated a moment too long.
“You did read it! Well, then, you know it’s not true. Shame on you Joely! Not only do you spread false word, but you lie when your own poor mother ask you ‘bout it. Lying is a twice-committed sin, girl, and for that you must twice repent. Go to your room, and read your Proverbs ‘till you learnt your lesson!” I pushed my chair away from the table and brought my plate to the sink…then stopped. The window was open, and I could hear the buzzing of bees and flies, and the scent of the summer wildflowers drifted through the humid air. There was something else out there. Something intangible, something tasteless, noiseless, but I could feel it screaming in my ears! I ran to the door and threw it open, running down the steps and into the yard. It bordered onto a farmer’s field that was once a meadow, and soon I was weaving my way through the high stalks of corn faster and faster until the sound of my mother calling me back could no longer be heard, and it was just me and the moon beams standing in a sea of gold. I was panting hard from the running, but more so from my excitement. I could feel it so strongly now, that same warmth I remembered from my younger years. Ilana was here. She was near to me, and I could feel her whispers in my head. I hadn’t felt her for years, but here she was as strong as ever. My Ilana, oh, where could she be!
“ILANA? ILANA? Are you out there?” Nothing.
“Ilana?” The feeling was fading, I had to fight to keep a hold on it but it was slipping, slipping…gone. Ilana was gone, and I was suddenly aware that I could no longer see the house, and I didn’t remember which way I came through the grass, and there was an article in the paper a few weeks ago about a girl’s body that had been found in the river a few miles out of town. No pictures had accompanied the article, but my imagination readily supplied them; a young girl, my age, bruised and covered in blood. It was seeping slowly from a hole in her arm, and her eyes stared to the sun blankly, her mouth buzzing with flies. As my brain created more and more, I saw the bruises still spreading, spreading, and covering her sallow face like some horrible waxy oil spill. Something bit my arm, and I screamed.
“OH!” I jumped up, running as fast as I could. I just had to get away from the forest, the dead forest that was now a farm. Its ghost was everywhere, it was chasing me!
“Leave me alone!” Had they caught the man that had killed that girl? I couldn’t remember. Oh, God, he was here, my punishment for disobeying my mother. He would kill me too. Light! The house! I ran blindly towards that beautiful light, up the porch steps and back into the house, slamming the door behind me.
“Child! There you are! What possessed you to run out like that?” My mother sounded angry, worried.
“I think you should go to your room now like I told you to.”
“Did they ever catch the man that killed that girl by the river last week?”
“Killed- child, that girl ain’t dead. And nobody done lay a hand on her neither. She had an allergic reaction to something down by that river, passed out and fell in the water. She fine now. What make you think she gone and died?”
“Oh. Oh. I don’t know I just thought…I must have been confused.” My right arm was itching, and I looked down to see a mosquito bite where I had imagined human teeth. I walked up the stairs slowly, feeling the eyes of my mother and brothers on my back as I left. Reaching my room, I fell weakly on to the bed, and began to cry.
How can you separate memories from fantasies? Things I wished for so hard I believed they were true swam in and out of my head, and I was constantly being corrected.
“No, that wasn’t you, it was your brother.” “Are you sure that happened?” “Was this in a dream?’
There was no way to tell what was real and what was not. Years drifted by, seemingly in a haze, and I began to question what I used to think I knew. Was Ilana real? Did all those summers really happen, all those nights spent by the lake? It seemed impossible. And people don’t just disappear like that. Did she move away? But then I would remember saying goodbye. Did she pass away in some horrible accident my mother was too scared to remind me of? Surely I would have a newspaper clipping or something. A recollection of the funeral, perhaps. I was fifteen, and it was time to face facts. Ilana never existed. She was an imaginary friend maybe. Someone so perfect, so suited to me, was impossible, and could only be the result of a lonely little girl’s imagination. I created for myself the perfect best friend, and when I no longer needed her, I made her disappear. This was the truth.
And yet my heart was breaking.
This truth became my whole reality.
Nothing existed unless it fit in with Ilana not being real. If someone told a story about their imaginary best friend, I would smile and nod and share my own anecdote. But if they talked about a real best friend, someone they had lost contact with, I would turn away. My school work became my first priority. I didn’t have friends: I had study-buddies. By day I would function, say the right things at the right time, complete tests and eat lunch. But at night, I would dream of Ilana. Her hair, her eyes, and the way she smiled and laughed with me. One night, I dreamt that we were running along a vast river, each of us on either side. Our hair was blowing behind us, and we were both screaming with laughter and joy. We were racing towards the end of the river, and we seemed to have been running for days.
“First one to the end wins, Joely! First one to the end!” she taunted me, but I just smiled and laughed. She was looking at me, not ahead of her, and so I was the first one to see the end. There was a huge curve, swirling into a whirlpool as all the water from the great river crashed against the rocks. The sky was darker at the end, and in the middle of it all stood my mother, throwing rocks into the water violently.
“It’s a sin! A sin! A sin!” she screamed over and over, and I knew that the end would really be the end, not just a pleasant afternoon with a friend.
“Ilana! Ilana, stop!”
“First one to the end! Joely, I’ll be the first!”
“ILANA! STOP!” My mother threw another rock, and it slid across the water, tangling Ilana’s feet. She tripped and fell into the river. For a moment her face bore an expression of abject horror, and then it smoothed, and the river became calm. There were no rocks, no rapids. Ilana slid silkily down the river on her back smiling up at me. I was still running alongside her, but now the sound of my own breathing was loud in my ears and I could feel myself starting to fall back.
“I’m the first, Joely. I reached the end first…” She whispered, still smiling, and reached the curve of the river. I stopped running and watched as she slid calmly backwards down the gaping hole in the earth, falling with the water to the darkest pits of who knows what Hell.
The next morning, it was all over the news. A pair of hikers had found a body buried a few miles out of town, not far from where that girl had had her accident years earlier. A professional coroner was coming down to try to identify the body, and everyone was nervous, excitedly hanging on to every scrap of a news report they could get. The air was charged with the humming kind of fever that is borne out of someone else’s tragedy. The people were safe in their world, but out there somewhere, someone was dead. The coroner’s report came in a week later. The bones were that or a young girl, maybe nine or ten. There was a crack in her skull that suggested that she had been murdered. The coroner, a tall, indifferent, slimy man, said that he believed that the crack had been caused by a blunt object of some sort, rather, he announced, like a rock. The state police would soon have enough evidence to make an arrest, everyone was certain of it. It was spoken about in the school cafeteria and in barber shops, in check out lines at the supermarket and between strangers.
“It’s a terrible thing, a young girl like that,” they decided, “but they’ll catch that murderer soon. Any day now, they’ll do it, and, well, won’t they be sorry.” And the people would walk away nodding to themselves “They’ll be sorry. They’ll be sorry.” Two weeks after finding the body, concrete evidence was also discovered that could link the police to the murderer. Three days after the evidence was found the police came for my mother. Five hours after she was taken into custody, the body was identified as an Ilana Yaaritz, age ten. Less than half an hour after they announced the victim’s name, my mother confessed to the murder.
In the days preceding her trial, I would speak to my mother three times. The first time she would hold me and cry, but not say a word. The second time she would ask me about school, my brothers, and where we would live until the trail. The third time, she would finally explain.
“It just wasn’t natural, darlin’. You and that girl were so fast friends, it just wasn’t right.”
“What wasn’t right, mama? The fact that a little girl had a best friend? The fact that Ilana was Jewish? Or was it something to do with me? Did you just hate me so much that you took it out on her?”
“No, baby, no. None of those things.” She bent her head, and wouldn’t look at me. I could tell it was hard for her, but I wouldn’t let her go. “It was…you two were just so close. It wasn’t right, it just wasn’t natural. You were always such a…such a queer little child.” A sob. “I just couldn’t let it happen. My baby girl, an abomination. You were young then, but soon you’d grow up and that little loose girl, she’d turn you gay. Turn you gay and away from God. It was just so easy to get rid of her. She would ‘a gone to Hell anyways. I just stopped her from taking you with her. You asked ‘bout her all the time though. That was the hard part. Lyin’ is a twice-committed sin, and once I started, I just couldn’t stop! I had to let you believe she ain’t real! It didn’t hurt you so much as if you’d known the truth. You got over it anyhow. Got real smart didn’t ya. My baby girl.” And she burst into tears.
“Mother. Mother, stop crying. You’re just making a nuisance of yourself. I’m not gay. I never was. I could say more, but I don’t think you deserve to hear it. I don’t own you an explanation. All you need to know is that you took away the best thing that could have happened. And then you let me think that I was crazy, and that all those wonderful memories I had were not real. ” I got up from the little plastic chair, hung up that stupid plastic phone, and looked through that plastic barrier at the sobbing murderer that was my mother.
“We were just girls, mama. A pair of golden reeds.”
And I walked away.