Art by Norman E. Masters
Look at me, Sally,' she said quietly."
Roselyn and five other girls went swimming.
They pedalled their bicycles to Paradise Playland, then turned off on a dirt road. The road, before it came to the railroad tracks, branched off and the right-hand branch went into a small wood. Parking their bicycles in the clearing by the lake's edge they undressed and put on their bathing suits which had been wrapped in towels and carried in the bike baskets. One girl, Sally, the youngest of them, had worn her suit under her jeans and, turning away quickly, she did not look at the other girls as they changed.
The girls laughed and shouted; it was a warm summer day and they were anxious to get into the cool water.
The swimming hole was small, only being a shadowy place where a river from the lake flowed past a tree, deepening there to the height of Peb, the tallest girl's chin, when she was standing on her tip-toes, then shallowing quickly until four yards downstream it was less than a foot in depth. Further down the water gurgled in the bright sunshine as it went over the rocks and then under a barb wire fence.
On the other side of the river they could see a broad brown level field, and at the far end of it they could see a tractor. Mr. Reynolds was discing. He was nice but had not liked it very well when they had stolen green apples there once. They listened for the sound of the tractor but could not hear it because it was so far away it looked like a toy.
Peb, always the first girl in the water, cannon-balled from the diving board, splashing all the other girls who had wanted to get used to the water gradually. Peb bobbed to the surface breathing through her mouth because of the noseplug on the elastic string which was pinching her nostrils; she splashed the others by sliding her tilted palm rapidly across the water at them.
Sally stood on the bank watching. She had put down her towel folded into a neat square and right in the center of it her bar of Palmolive soap. Peb saw her standing there and started to splash her. The other girls told her not to because then she might run home to her mama and tell her that she had gotten wet while swimming.
"Sally, Sally, wash your feet," Peb called, "the Board of Health is 'cross the street."
The girls laughed.
Sally, her lower lip trembling, went downstream to where the water was not deep and put in her ear-plugs so she could not hear the others talking. She stepped into the wataer and then sat down, getting herself wet all over in her own way. She thought it was nice to watch the girls without having to listen to their talk.
But a few minutes later because of what they were starting to do she pulled her earplugs out quickly, her eyes wide with fright.
Peb asked her what was she staring at if she had never seen girls getting undressed before. The water was too nice to use bathing suits, she said, so they were going to swim without them. She stood there with a cigarette in her mouth without any clothing on and laughed and called Sally a chicken because she wouldn't undress in front of the others.
She swore and called her a mama's girl and then started toward her saying to get out of her bathing suit in a hurry or she would rip it off her. But the other girls held Peb, saying to leave Sally alone.
She pushed them away telling the girl to go hide her head in a hole except that she used a big word that Sally didn't quite know the meaning of. Then Peb screamed something dirty about Sally's mother and father and that was when Sally threw the rock and was running past, her fists clenched, the small stones along the shore cutting into her feet.
Peb screamed names, so many that Sally wished she had never come swimming or at least had left her earplugs in. She felt a rain of stones across her back just before she got into the woods. They hurt but she wasn't at all sorry that she had thrown the rock. The only thing wrong was that it hadn't hit Peb. She deserved it for all the things that she had said about her mother and father.
Roselyn, back at the river's edge, started toward Peb who had seen the younger girl's towel and soap and started to throw them into the water. Roselyn twisted them firmly out of her handss, and pushing her away, followed to the place where Saly had gone.
"Leave her alone, the little chicken," Peb said and swore again. "If you want to come swimming with us again, you'll leave her alone."
Roselyn paid no attention to Peb.
She found Saly behind a small bush near three willow trees. She was crying. Her eyes widened as she saw Roselyn; she cried harder.
"Here's your towel and soap."
Sally only cried harder.
"Don't cry," Roselyn said, dropping to the girl's side and trying to put her arms around her clumsily. The girl struggled out of her grasp.
"Peb don't mean nothing," she said, her own throat thick with the other girl's crying. "She doesn't matter at all. She's just a..."
"But there were three of them and ony one of me," Sally said, climbing back into the older girl's arms still crying, only now a little more softly. Roselyn felt like the girl's mother.
Sally told her about how sweet her own mother was, how gentle her voice was and how she brushed her hair a hundred strokes each night just before tucking her with a tinysize kiss into bed (see how fluffy smooth it is; it's not coarse and rough like some other girls I know) and how she parted it in the morning and pigtailed it with two red ribbons. This was during the school year of course, not during the summer except on Sunday mornings before church and the mornings of the two weeks when she went to the St. Paul's Young Peoples' Bible School ("Do you go to Bible School?" "No," Roselyn said, feeling strange). Her mother always gave her a big molasses cookie with a big gob of jelly in the center wrapped in waxed paper or sometimes an oatmeal cookie and packed in the green trimmed white lunchbox next to her diagonally cut egg-and-olive sandwich and she always remembered how much her mother loved her as she unwrapped her lunch and then ate the cookie and sandwich and drank chocolate milk from the hand-sized red plastic cup-cover of her own little Tom-Thumb themos.
That was why what Peb had said about her mother and father was not, could not be true, not only because she loved her parents (weren't they the big people whom she sat between in church; were they not also the very same ones who had taken her out of her own bed that time when it had lightning and put her between them in their own warm big bed?) but also because she didn't quite know what the word Peb had used meant.
Roselyn did not tell her. She thought of her own parents and then of this young girl's tender innocence and how some day soon this innocence would be replaced with learning. She wished that it would never have to be.
They talked together and Roselyn told a joke she'd heard her brother tell, substituting Peb's name. Sally laughed and after awhile there behind the small bush near the three willow trees not far from the softly running river both of them went to sleep. They were yet young girls, one just beginning to grow conscious of her body, the other having known for so long that she could not remember not having known.
They both awoke at the same time and went back to the swimming hole. No one was there. Sally's bicycle was not where she had parked it and Roselyn's had been tipped over. Sally started to cry. Roselyn walked over to the river's edge, squinting, and waded in lifting Sally's bicycle out of the water. She rolled it up the bank and put the kickstand down. Someone had let the air out of the tires.
"Never mind," Roselyn said. "You can ride my bike. We'll walk yours down to Mr. Reynolds's farm. He'll pump the tires up for you."
Sally stopped crying and there was nothing else to worry about.
Except that Roselyn had to get dressed.
"No," she said as Sally started to turn away. "Look at me. I want you to look at me, Sally. Your body is nothing to be ashamed of and cover up. And you don't have to be afraid to look at other girls undressing. Look at me, Sally," she said quietly.
"I don't want... to."
"It's not going to hurt you. But it may hurt you later if you don't."
"No. I'm -- "
"You're going to be in plenty of places where all the girls are undressed. You'll learn then quick if you don't now." She waited. "Look, Sally."
"I -- "
"Don't be afraid," she said quietly.
Sally's lips trembled.
"Look," she said softly. "It's what your mother would want you to do."
Sally looked at Roselyn and then away and then back again and she didn't cry.
"We're... the same," Sally said.
"That's right, Sally."
Roselyn dressed quickly. "Just the same. Now let's get some air in these tires."
They stopped at Mr. Reynolds's farm.
Mr. Reynolds wiped the bicycle off and then filled the tires. He asked them how it had gotten wet and Roselyn said it had fallen into the river while they were playing a game. He smilingly scratched his head and said something about the younger generation. They thanked him and waved goodbye to him and the collie which frisked under her hand. Then they pedalled back home with the sun sending their shadows longly before them and their wet towels rolled in their bicycle baskets, a mild breeze stroking down coolly on their arms and faces and wet drying hair. They were glad they had made friends with each other and cared about the other girls not at all, in fact, were very happy that they had left.