The rest of the afternoon passed so enjoyably that Charlinder soon asked himself if he had overreacted. He forgot the tension of the school day. He liked his life just where it was, and he preferred not to think about how it would be several years down the road, when all his friends would be mothers of children in his class. Stuart, for example, was a very sweet child but there was no telling how he would be as a pupil. The idea that within the next couple of years the rest of his friends would also have babies was a change he preferred not to imagine. The idea of “babies” was one thing, but he preferred to come up to Spinners’ Square and join the women as “my friend Char,” and without the additional layer of “my kid’s teacher.” He liked what they had just then. It didn’t need to change.
Even when Ruth arrived late in the day with a knitting project of what appeared to be a small sock, Charlinder assumed she didn’t intend to do anything except enjoy some conversation while doing her textile work.
“Hello, Ruthie,” said Miriam, in the tone she used to tell people they were expected to declare their intentions right away.
“Hi, everyone,” Ruth responded as she sat down in the grass. “Hi, Stuey!” she cooed at Stuart, who held up the ball of yarn he was using as a toy.
That was enough for the time being. Ruth went on knitting, the rest of them continued with their tasks, and no one said very much, but it wasn’t a tense quiet. It was the kind of quiet that happens when no one needs to say anything, and they were comfortable that way, until the sun started glowing orange and sinking towards the horizon.
“Char, who was the other little boy fighting in school today?” asked Ruth suddenly.
“What do you mean by ‘the other little boy’?” He suspected she already knew of Taylor’s nephew, but wanted her to spell it out.
“I heard from Taylor that his nephew, Michael, was in a fight with another little boy at school today. Who was the other boy?”
“That was Khalil,” said Miriam. “I’m tight with his grandmother.”
“What were they fighting about?” asked Ruth.
“Taylor didn’t tell you?”
“No, he just said Khalil said something that made Michael really mad, and they ended up fighting.”
Charlinder did not like where this was headed. “Khalil said Michael and Taylor were both squirrel-brains,” he said, dodging the issue and making Phoebe and Yolande giggle.
“But what would make him say that?” Ruth pressed on.
“I don’t know,” he fudged. “Kids that age do a lot of things for no apparent reason. The little buggers just don’t think.”
“But this is the first fight you’ve seen in two years of teaching school,” said Ruth. “Surely it didn’t just happen for no reason.”
Miriam let out an exasperated growl. “Char, you might want to leave now,” she said through gritted teeth, then turned to Ruth. “Taylor probably already told you this, but just to get it back in the open so you know we’re all informed, little Michael decided to share Uncle Taylor’s preaching about how God punished people for behaving badly by giving them the Plague. Khalil didn’t agree with him.”
“So, how did you handle that?” Ruth asked Charlinder.
“How he handles the kids in the schoolroom is none of your business,” said Miriam.
“No, really, it’s okay,” Charlinder cut in. “The class got a little off the subject after a history lesson, and I just wanted to move on so we could have math time. The kids didn’t drop the subject when I asked, and they ended up fighting, so I broke them up and made everyone sit down in their math groups. And then it was over.”
“Why couldn’t you just let them discuss what they wanted?” asked Ruth.
“Because if I let a few six-year-olds decide the topic of discussion every time one of them had a whim, we’d never get anything accomplished,” he answered.
“So, you don’t want them discussing the Plague?”
“The Plague is a history lesson for another time, which I do teach, just not today.”
“So, what, you don’t want them discussing the disease that set the human race back by thousands of years, except on your terms?”
“I’d have no right to call myself a teacher if I let the kids use school time to have any conversation at any time they wished,” he pointed out. “Then I’d just be a babysitter, and while many parents figure it’s the same thing, I’m still interested in educating. And if you ever try teaching kids that young, you’ll see you can’t just let them run the place. So, yes, I do want them discussing the Plague on my terms only, or they can take it outside of school.”
“Which I see your friend Taylor has already done, in any case,” said Miriam.
“And does that bother you?” asked Ruth.
“If Taylor wants to give his big sister and brother a break from dealing with a six-year-old boy for just long enough to tell him that God loved His creations so much He tried to kill them all,” Miriam explained, “then I’m frankly disturbed, but then I can’t be everyone’s mother when their mothers are alive. What bothers me is when people want to use the Plague as an excuse to pick fights with people who aren’t interested,” she continued. “Like you’re doing now, for example.”
“Picking a fight?” Ruth said disbelievingly. “Is that what I’m doing?”
“Well, you are the one who brought it up,” said Phoebe.
Yolande tucked the wool cards under one arm and took Stuart in the other. “Come on, Stu-baby, time to go home,” she said while making haste from the Square.
“What you call ‘picking a fight’ is the least that I and anyone else who cares around here has to do to get anyone to talk,” said Ruth. “What are you all afraid of, anyway?”
“We’re not ‘afraid of’ anything except giving you lot the idea that there is anything to talk about involving your God. Just who are you to decide what anyone should be talking about around here, anyway?” demanded Miriam.
“Maybe we do it out of concern for your souls,” Ruth offered, still just as composed as ever above her array of slender knitting needles and two-ply yarn. “Maybe we want you to start talking about what led to the Plague because we don’t want you to suffer eternal damnation in Hell for your actions.”
Charlinder wanted to run home and bury himself under a pile of Eileen Woodlawn’s writings, but one look at Phoebe’s face showed him what he felt: they just couldn’t look away.
Miriam began laughing again. “And who’s going to tell us what kind of behavior is going to send us to Hell? You?” she scoffed. “That is, assuming your promises of Heaven and Hell are places that really exist, which I’m far from convinced they are, but you know how I really feel about what caused the Plague, and what your God may have had to do with it?”
“No, Miriam, tell me how you really feel,” Ruth said flatly.
“I just don’t care one way or the other. I don’t see why anyone gives a lamb’s tail about what caused a disease that snuffed itself out almost a hundred-twenty years ago, when we have much more important things to do than argue over what might have happened. The Plague is in the past; it is history. We need to take care of the present, and if you have enough time on your hands to be quibbling about something that far in the past, then you’re not doing enough to get this farm moving into the future.”
Phoebe looked extremely impressed with Miriam’s rant, but Ruth was unfazed.
“But what kind of future will we have if we just make the same mistakes that brought God’s anger on our ancestors? How many of us will survive another Plague?”
“And again I ask,” Miriam continued, “Who are you to know what any supposed God wants us to do, any more than the rest of us? And have you ever found it a little strange how your whole argument for why we should love God, and worship Him, and build our lives around bending to His will and honoring His divine plan, is that He supposedly brought about a disease that killed over six and a half billion people in less than two years? Have you ever considered how that looks to those of us who aren’t impressed with your reasoning for why God even exists in the first place? Any God who would do that to His creations for disobeying a moral code that He never even bothered to communicate to them is, as far as I care, not a God who deserves even our respect, much less our worship.”
This time, even Ruth was shocked. She finally blinked and recovered her voice enough to say, “There doesn’t have to be any mystery in what God expects from us. It’s a pity that none of our original survivors left a Bible in good enough condition to last this long, but all you have to do is pray, and listen to what He says.”
“Except I don’t think you, or any of the other Faithful, want us to pray,” Miriam told her. “You don’t want us to listen to voices only we can hear, and you don’t want us to discuss what we think may have happened over a hundred years ago. You want us to listen to you. And that’s why the rest of us don’t want to have this conversation. It doesn’t matter why our ancestors saw all their family and friends die of the Plague, because at this point, there’s nothing we can do to change the fact that it happened. Arguing about what they did to bring that disease on themselves isn’t going to make our children’s lives any easier or better. The only people who have any reason to care about why the Plague happened are long since dead.”
“I see I’m wasting my breath on you,” said Ruth, with a slight expression of awe.
“You’ve been wasting your breath on everyone who’s been sitting here, honey,” Miriam confirmed.
Ruth speared her ball of yarn on the ends of her needles and stood up. Before she walked away, however, she looked at Charlinder. “She never could explain how she knew it was safe to go outside, could she?”
“I don’t think she was ever really concerned about that,” Charlinder answered.
“No, she may not have been concerned. But she still never managed to explain it, even after she described it in her diary,” Ruth reminded him, and finally walked away.
“What was that about? Who is ‘she’?” asked Phoebe.
There was no way it could be anyone else. “Eileen Woodlawn.”