EARLY ONE MORNING
am swimming up into the morning through green-gold water that is shot with sunrays as I surface. It is a dream and I float out of the image as I open my eyes.
And I am in my own bed. I am lying on my smooth white sheet, my covers on the floor, and I can hear a wild tumult of birdsong: the trees, even the verandah vine, are full of so many birds singing that it is amazing that everyone isn’t awake, but all the sounds are outside. Within the house all is quiet and everyone still sleeps.
I lean up on my elbow to look through my wide open window. The air is cool but the day will be warm, maybe even hot.
I hitch myself up to look out and better see my maple tree, which is at this moment seething with the singing birds. It is huge and ancient and because of the way the lawn slopes below the house, I am almost on a level with its crown. The leaves nearest me are in shadow and the sun is lighting the ones only at the very top on the eastern side. The sunlit ones are the bright new green of early summer. Below me the grass is dark green, still wet with dew. I know just how it would feel, cold, under my feet and that I would leave silver tracks. By my new watch I see that it is six o’clock.
I will think about my secret.
I rest my arms on the sill and notice how brown they already are, making the little blond hairs on them look white as they catch the light. I am wearing pale orange pajamas, short-sleeved, many times washed, in fact a faint peach colour now, and rather shrunken. Or is it that I am now so tall? My arms and legs have lengthened even since Christmas.
At every time of year my first ritual on waking, when I am home, is to study the leaves and bark of my maple. I know from their look how early it is; also in the evenings, how late. I am not someone who really needs a watch but time is important to me and I like to be precise. And I like my watch, which is a man’s and what I asked for. On long summer evenings, I stare at the leaves until the shadows have gathered and deepened and then it is important that I sleep at once. I must not still be awake when darkness overtakes the tree.
From the tree, I also know the weather and the temperature: in winter the tree’s unprotected skin pales, becomes dry and brittle, grey with the cold. Watching from my window, I know how it would feel under my hand. And it darkens with warmth and moisture on a milder day while the snow around its base greys and coarsens. In spring the bark is a richer brown and I watch the thin, high branches, the fragile black twigs against the sky, and think of the sap mounting. My brother and I pound in sharp spigots, one to each side to hang a pail on, and tap it. The sap tastes of spring, thin and green. We boil it down and make a tiny jug of syrup.
I am obsessed with seasons as well as time. I am a very odd child, according to my sisters. Even though I am a quiet person, it seems that I am turning out to be the most extreme member of the family, in some ways anyway. I am not sure how much choice a person has in who she turns out to be. The difficulty is in wanting the things and being the ways other people expect. A person can make herself do certain things perhaps, but she can’t make herself want to. In my case I don’t even make myself do them.
The situation is getting worse because I am about to be fourteen. Increasingly I feel the push of other people’s expectations on me of what a girl is supposed to be and I can’t want any of the things I’m supposed to be eager for. My sisters have gone ahead of me along the path into, and in the case of my older sister, out the other side of, adolescence. They have had to endure miseries and perils, and I have watched in dread the tortures of shyness and holding back in the case of one, and the worrying but brave ventures forth in the case of the other, both of them being determined, throughout, to succeed at being the right sort of woman whatever the cost. The miseries and perils were about having the wrong sort of hair (we all have curly) and having in every way to look and behave unnaturally or face terrible scorn. I long to bypass the whole stage and I will, somehow. I don’t seem able to do anything else, in fact.
However, at the moment I am so happy I can’t even worry. I am home from boarding school and I will never go back there. Mother has promised. We may even move back to Toronto and I’d go to school there. I have been home for two weeks, but still each morning I wake up to joy and relief at being in my own bed. And there is my new and secret friendship. It makes me feel a little bit excited all the time, even when I am doing other things.
My grandmother is visiting, and my aunt, who lives with her. This is their summer holiday in the country and they are here for three weeks.
My grandmother has always worn a girdle and stays. When I was a smaller girl, I would sit on her bed and watch her get dressed. It was a long and complicated matter. She had to deal with several layers, while more or less lying down against the pillows. The room was dim because her window had an awning to keep out the sun, and that made her tasks all the more mysterious. While still in her loose summer dressing gown, she would begin. The first step was using a big peach-coloured puff to smooth talcum powder over herself, slipping her hands under her gown to do this. She never would be fully undressed in front of me. Then she would place tiny, flattish pink powder-puffs in strategic, tender spots against her pink plumpness (of which I would have some glimpses) to protect her soft skin from the bones of her stays, or girdle. This at first flapped hugely wide and spoked, and then was heaved firmly into position — an uncomfortable moment requiring an indrawn breath — and then hooked and laced. I remember how I would sit there, grasping my bony knees tightly, watching her body that seemed to have no bones at all.
Her drawers were heavy silk and had legs. They were oyster coloured, or deep cream. I planned, and still plan, never to wear anything but cotton myself, no matter how old I get. I will never wear anything that could be called “drawers.” Not that I can imagine getting old, not me. A slip next. Then garters, with more powder-puffs carefully placed to protect the soft, dimply skin of her thighs.
I always wear as few clothes as possible in summer.
And I have always planned to take my body entirely for granted.
But the fact of the matter is that my own body is changing. No one else is noticing, but it is.
Enough. I bounce my fists on the sill. And jump lightly off the bed, as I don’t want to wake anybody else up, not for their sake but for my own. I peel off my pajamas and thrust my legs into my shorts that still hold my underpants from yesterday and I stand for a moment looking down at my new, small breasts. I like them. They are interesting. And they feel interesting. There is a sort of firm disk inside them that is changing and softening and they are getting bigger. The funny thing is, and I know it may not be logical, but I feel that the changes in my body have no relation to, are in no way like, the changes that must have happened to other women in my family. They are entirely private and mine and will not make me a woman like any of them.
I pull on a crumpled cotton blouse. It has been mashed against the cushion on my chair under the heavy book I am reading and that I threw there last night. I snatch up the book and run silently downstairs in my bare feet.
No one else gets up until about seven-thirty, not even my younger brother. The kitchen has a large bay window but it faces west and so the room is cool and shadowy now though by lunchtime it will be full of sunlight. I pour cereal into a bowl and add brown sugar, no milk, and I take three of the early plums and rearrange the bowl so no one will notice that I take more than is fair.
The verandah extends almost the full length of the house at the front and there is a Dutchman’s pipe vine that climbs all the posts and runs along the edge of the roof. As well, it has almost filled in the eastern end of the verandah where we have an old porch glider. That is where I lie on my stomach, propped on my elbows, in a dapple of sunshine. The leaves of the vine are large and round and a light bright green. Without looking directly at them, I am also aware of the two tall elms at the eastern edge of the lawn and I can see the three birch trees below our road that slightly screen the Bassetts’ cottage. Their lawn runs down to the lakeside road and then there is the lake itself, glinting here and there through the trees.
I am perfectly safe and no one can spring forth and mock me, as could happen so suddenly at boarding school if I ever let down my guard. I love knowing that. The birds are still singing though not quite as loudly. I eat a plum first. The thin, tough skin snaps under my teeth and a drop of juice falls onto the cover of my book. I lick it up.
I open my book and start to eat my cereal with my fingers. I am rereading War and Peace
, in the translation by Constance Garnett. Is that a man or a woman? I always mean to ask someone and never do. And how would “Constance” be a man, anyway? Maybe it’s the full form of the name: I am used to “Connies.” And a strong quality like constance could be a man’s or a woman’s, couldn’t it? Or maybe I mistrust the notion of a woman doing something so wonderful and huge as translating War and Peace
from the Russian. But I plan to learn Russian one day and would like to know of a woman who did manage it, and how and where she did so. I am in love with Prince André. The little Princess is dead and all should be plain sailing for him and Natasha. I fear and hate Anatole and dread what is coming.
Mr. MacLennan will know if “Constance” is a man or a woman. I will ask him today maybe, if I get a chance. I like to have a question to greet him with.
I rest my chin on my hands for a minute and think of Mr. MacLennan. I never think of him by his first name and don’t really even want to be asked ever to use it. It is like Jane and Mr. Rochester. It would be much more thrilling had she continued to call him that even after their marriage, the marriage that happens when he is so tamed, even maimed, and has become just “Edward.” All the excitement has leaked out of the situation by then.
Mr. MacLennan’s eyes are bright blue and they sort of narrow and glint when I come along, because of the way his cheeks go when he smiles. He has a distinctive smile, his mouth curving up at the sides the way a child draws a smile and the way people’s faces mostly don’t go. I love the way he smiles. He is an extremely handsome man, especially of course his legs. I think “of course” because we have made a thing in our family, my sisters and I that is, about his legs. It started before he and I became friends and now I don’t particularly like it that they still comment on his wonderful legs when I consider him to be mine. However, I have to contend with it because they don’t know that we are friends and I don’t want them to.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from I'll Tell You A Secret by Anne Coleman. Copyright © 2004 by Anne Coleman. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.