I woke up last week with a strange feeling. It was like I had forgotten a word which I used to speak all the time. It was on the tip of my tongue, but the word would not come.
Most days on the farm, everything is routine. Wake up with the sunrise. Feed the livestock, collect the eggs. Gather honey and beeswax from the hives. Rain or shine, frost or fog, there is always work to be done. The grapes must be harvested for wine. The peaches must be cooked and made into jam. The stalls must be cleaned. Work, work, work.
It never stops.
It is easy, in a way, to get lost in all that work. It is like wandering around while still asleep, doing, but never thinking. What will today bring? More cooking, more gathering, more work. What do I want to do tomorrow? It doesn’t matter what I want to do – the work must be done.
“I would really like to go to school,” I told River one day when we were taking a brief rest. It had been on my mind a lot. I hadn’t been to school since I was a little girl in Ethiopia, and I had always hoped to attend one here in America.
River pursed her lips. “Public schools are evil, corrupted places,” she said, shaking her head. “They take good, pure minds and fill them with dangerous ideas. Besides,” she added, “the Teacher prefers that you girls are trained here at home. You’re learning everything you need to be a good wife.”
I wrinkled my nose. “But what if I don’t want to be a wife? I want to learn math and history and science.”
River looked at me as though I had just told her I wanted to become a water buffalo. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “You are a girl. Becoming a wife is your destiny. Now off you go.” She made a shooing motion with her hands. “There’s work to be done.”
That was what triggered the strange feeling, I think. Like a tiny alarm inside of me was buzzing. Wake up, Tadelech, wake up!
“I feel it too,” said Belinda when I told her. “I feel it every day. Like if something doesn’t change, I’m going to burst!”
I stared toward the fence that bordered our farm. Beyond it stretched wide fields and rolling hills, mysterious places where we had never been allowed to venture. Something sparked inside me – a tiny golden flame that burst from my memories, of you and me sneaking out of the village late at night. Silver-flecked black skies, shadowy creatures slinking through the darkness, the shivery anticipation of the unknown.
“Let’s go,” I told Belinda.
“Go where?” her eyes danced with light.
I spread a hand toward the road that snaked into the hills. “Wherever it leads us.”
Throughout that day, we kept pausing in our work to make plans, exchanging conspiratorial whispers and giggles. And early the next morning, we raced through our chores, then set off. The others would think that we were out in the vineyard, or the orchard, or perhaps fishing at the pond. No one would ever suspect that two hard-working and dutiful girls were heading outside the boundaries of Rainbow Acres.
We walked a long way, but we barely noticed. We were too busy drinking in the strange, exciting sights of other farms, other houses, and occasional cars that passed us along the road. We breathed air that was fresh, new air. We felt rain that was fresh, new rain. Even the sky looked different.
And the word came to me at last. Freedom. For the first time ever, we were free of the confines of the farm.
Eventually, we reached the town – straight lined roads, buildings of brick and stone, and charming little houses that reminded me of picture books your parents used to show us. We wandered around open-mouthed, dazzled by everything we saw. The neat, trim gardens filled with flowers. Parks and fountains and shops filled with clothes and rows of food. We tiptoed up to the school building and peered inside a window. A smiling woman was talking to a cluster of children, who were seated around tiny tables. The walls were lined with colorful pictures and posters. Nothing about it looked evil or corrupt. Something tugged inside of me, a deep sense of yearning.
After that first time, Belinda and I sneaked away to town three more times. One time, we met a kind boy who answered our questions with an air of patience mixed with astonishment at our ignorance of this world outside of our own. “You’ve never been to school?” he asked, eyes wide. “You’ve never seen a television? Man, that’s crazy!”
He led us up and down the aisles of the market. He bought us each a chocolate bar, then grinned at the looks on our faces when we had our first taste. He led us to the public library, and oh! Leon, I can’t even begin to describe what a wonderful place that is! So many books in one enormous room. I could have lived there.
Belinda and I returned to Rainbow Acres each time with heavy hearts. We are birds, you see, who were always meant to fly, but have just discovered that we live in a cage.
Our ventures came to a swift end one day. It turns out that Leslie saw us sneak away that morning and told the Teacher. When Belinda and I came home, River and Spring were waiting, fire and brimstone in their eyes as they punished us – first with harsh words, and then with extra chores.
Now, I am so sore and exhausted when I drag myself to bed, that I can’t even imagine mustering up enough energy to sneak away to town again. Belinda and I have settled back into the routine, sleepwalking through the daily work, and exchanging sad glances, filled with shared memories of our short flights of freedom.