IN WHICH Sophia Encounters A Fellow Sister Of Formidable Talent
Wilma walked around the lake. It was surprisingly chill, even in early September. She had a thick blanket under one arm, and a thermos in her hand. She paused on top of one hummock, and pursed her lips, as she scanned the predawn shore. Finally, her eyes spotted the seated, tall lanky form, the head of straight red hair, and wearing a T shirt and shorts far too thin for this weather.
“Typical,” she muttered, as she marched over the wet grass to her daughter. As Wilma approached closer, Sophie slowly turned her head, and opened one eye. Her hair was wet, and drops beaded on her face and arms.
“You encroach on the grounds of the lake,” she said, smiling with one eyebrow arched.
“And you are going to catch a cold, young lady!” Wilma replied, putting down the thermos, and unfolding the blanket.
“Fret not, mother. I’m perfectly warm.” Sophie then turned her head back to the placid waters, and looked over the light of the eastern sky. “The lake still has the summer heat.”
Wilma draped the blanket over Sophie, and indeed, her skin was warm with the humid heat of late summer, despite the chill in the air. “Yes, yes,” Wilma scoffed, as she arranged the blanket around Sophie. “And it will break the moment you stop concentrating on the connection. And there’s quite a walk home. And you have to go now if you hope to catch your train, young lady.”
Sophie took one more breath of lake air, and then accepted her mother’s hand to rise. Before she even fully stood, Sophie shivered. “See!” Wilma admonished. She picked up the thermos, and poured a cup of coffee, handing the cup to Sophie’s suddenly shaking hands. “What would you do if I didn’t come to fetch you?”
“In what universe -” Sophie stuttered through chattering teeth, “do you not come to get me?”
Wilma wagged her finger. “This is what you get for waiting until the last moment, and having to rely on the rain to help.”
“Jeez, mom. Every Sister I know rekindles a connection with a lake using the rain to help make it quicker. We don’t have days to get to know its rhythms, okay? I know back in your day, things were made of nothing but time, but these days, we’re pretty busy.”
“Back in my day- ” Wilma was muttering. “Shortcuts, Sophie!” Wilma shouted, the predawn stillness broken by the abruptness of her shout. “You know where there are shortcuts there are -”
“-wolves,” Sophie finished the sentence with a sigh, rolling her eyes.
“Come on, sweetie, brisk walk home, and then a long hot shower. I’ll make you a big breakfast. Are you all packed?”
Sophie may have nodded, or it may have just been her head shaking.
* * *
Sophie came down from the shower, toweling off her hair, and already dressed in her travel attire: a floral print short sleeve blouse, and a knee length pastel lavender skirt.
Wilma was placing the final bits of breakfast on the table. “You packed all your things?”
Sophie nodded, and glanced over at the hiker’s backpack that had a long, green umbrella strapped to the side.
Wilma followed her daughter’s gaze. “You got your typewriter into that thing? You have room for the food I’m going to send with you?”
Sophie shrugged, and tossed her towel on to a chair in the breakfast nook. “I can put the food in the basket.”
Wilma went to put the frying pan back in the kitchen, and Sophie rummaged around in her hiker’s pack, until she found the letter she typed the previous night before heading out to the lake. She went to put the folded letter, sealed with wax, on the table reserved for mail and bills, and saw an open letter from the firm her mother worked for.
“If a Sister does it, it’s not snooping,” she muttered, as she scooped up the letter, addressed to her mother, from her boss.
I must confess that I was disappointed that you’ll be turning down the promotion we offered you. Everyone here is quite impressed with your talent, and we feel you can do great things with us.
Of course, the final decision is yours, and I will respect it no matter what you make. But before you finalize it, please, allow me to take you out to lunch, so we can discuss your reservations. Please, invite your husband, I always enjoy his company.
My assistant will be contacting you shortly to arrange a date.
I look forward to this meeting.
Sophie put down the letter, her jaw slack, her eyes looking out to the middle distance.
“Come on,” Wilma called. “Eat while it’s hot.” She approached, and made eye contact with Sophie, and Wilma’s expression fell as she saw the letter in her hand. “I knew I should have tossed that,” she muttered.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were going to get a promotion?” Sophie said, slamming the letter down on the bill table.
Wilma herded Sophie to the breakfast table. “Because I saw no need to rehash this fight. I’m not going to convince you, and you’re not going to convince me. Eat!”
Sophie’s lips were thin, and her nostrils flared, as she sat at the table, poking at her food without eating it. “But you could help so many more people, instead of just one at a time. They need your experience on the front lines, and your - honesty!”
“You can’t help people, only -”
“A person,” Sophie spat out the platitude. “I’m getting a little sick of these aphorisms, mom.” Sophie sighed, and regarded the steaming plate.
Wilma relaxed, and scooted closer to Sophie. “Listen, sweetie. I was young once too, okay? I remember the passion, the idealism, the fire of the spirit. But the world of Men doesn’t want to do things our way. The world of Men doesn’t know about magic, but if they ever did, all they would see is the profit in it. You want to help people? That’s great, you know I do. Every Sister does. We all Feel their suffering, not just you. But if you focus on the forest, you’ll lose track of the suffering of the trees. Once that happens, you can justify anything you do as ‘for their good’. You’ll become like Men. There’s plenty of Sisters who made that mistake.”
Wilma sighed. “As you get older, I hope you’ll come to appreciate the baked-in wisdom of our Traditions. Hopefully not the hard way. Meanwhile, you’re a Sister, through and through. You help the person in front of you, not masses of people in tidy documents.”
Sophie nodded. “I’m sorry for picking a fight. Especially just as I’m leaving.” Sophie shrugged her shoulders, and looked at her mother. “I love you.”
Wilma leaned over, and wrapped her arms around her. “I love you too, pumpkin. Now eat. But not too much, or you’ll get sick biking to the train!”
Sophie shoveled in her food, and went for her bag.
“Don’t forget to say goodbye to your father!”
Sophie burst into the sunroom, where her father was looking over a chalkboard full of math formulae. “How was the lake, sweetie?”
She hugged him tightly, and he picked her up off her feet in his embrace.
“Senior year, honey,” he said, playfully punching her on the arm once they broke off. Smiling, he looked her over once. “Give ‘em hell.”
She laughed, and then ran out the sunroom. She laced up her boots, and then hoisted up her pack, teetering a bit as the weight threw her off, but regaining her balance just as her mother hesitantly reached out an arm to catch her.
Sophie raced down the porch to the waiting bicycle at the bottom of the porch, climbing aboard despite the weight on her back.
“Your food, Sophie!” Her mother came running out the door, brown bag in hand. She relaxed as the package was safely placed into the front basket of the bike. She leaned in and kissed her daughter. “Love ya, watch out for cars!”
Sophie graciously accepted the kiss as she tightened the strap of her helmet, and then waved as she kicked off, and began pedaling down the road.
* * *
“Hey, Sophie!” shouted the Youth Outreach Minister at a table in the activities fair.
Sophie was walking her bike through the crowd, backpack firmly in place, bag of food an empty husk of its former self. “Hey, Rev! How’s fishing? Anyone biting?” She shot him a big smile.
He smiled back at her. “All in its time, Sophie. We’ll see you this Sunday? Always nice to see familiar faces.”
“Wouldn’t miss it, Rev.” She smiled as she pressed through the crowd, greeting returning students and a few professors.
The bustle of the main campus thinned out, and she continued walking down the street to the co-op. The old house, built some time in the early 1800s, and painstakingly maintained, had rebranded itself as the “Low Tech” Co-op when the college introduced the Co-op system to supplant the Greek system. There were many additions of various styles growing forth, bringing the place to an oddly shaped six bedroom manor.
Sophie locked her bike in the rack next to the others, and used her key to get in the door. The heavy wooden door gave way to the foyer, with an umbrella stand filled with a variety of different colored and sized umbrellas. Also, something that looked like a narrow, long paddle, marked with jagged skull and bones decals, leaned against the stand, as it couldn’t fit in. Well, that was new. She fished her umbrella off the side of her pack and slotted it in next to the others.
“Hello, ladies!” Sophie called out, and got a chorus of greetings echoed from the various corners of the house. She struggled to take off her shoes with the heavy backpack on, and was finally able to, after a few false starts and near falls.
She passed the main hall of the house that had been opened up, a few supporting columns in place of the old walls. Now it was filled with a long table surrounded by chairs, with bookcases against the walls and mismatched sofas and chairs scattered about. They all faced a stone hearth, with a rack over the cooled ashes of last night’s fire. Gwen, a sopho- nope, she’d be a junior now, sat in one of the chairs near a window overlooking their garden, her wiry body folded up curiously, with one leg under her, the other next to her. “Hey, G-money!” Sophie called out to her, getting a smile from behind her book, before climbing up the stairs.
The upstairs hall was narrow, had wallpaper in fading colored stripes, and doors studded along its length. Sophie made for her room, but then Delfina, starting her second year, popped out her door, only to face Sophie, huge pack on her back, blocking the narrow hall. Delfina crossed her bare hazel arms across her curvy chest. “You’re not the only one trying to move in, ya know!” But her playful smile echoed the sentiment that Delfie was glad to see her.
Sophie rolled her eyes, as Delfina backed into her room to allow her to pass. “Moving in?” Sophie retorted. “What are you talking about? I plan on wearing this pack all the time! Especially in the House.” Delfina giggled behind her.
Sophie was finally back in her room, and let the pack slide off of her with a loud thud on the old, mellow wooden floor. Sophie took a minute to stretch her arms, and rub the red indentations in her shoulders where the straps had dug in.
She looked around the room. Naira, another senior, shared her room. Her unpacked bag was on her bed. The small table, with a green ceramic pot growing a violet, separated Sophie’s and Naira’s sides of the room. Sophie took a moment to smell it.
The pipes groaned, indicating that somebody flushed one of the two upstairs toilets. A moment later, Naira entered, and the two of them squealed and hugged each other, Sophie towering over her petite figure, her ochre skin and black straight hair contrasting against Sophie’s fair features and freckles. They then both sat on their beds, Naira knocking her stuff off into the corner. “Soph, we only have one freshman this year.”
“The one from Scotland?” Sophie asked. She had gotten a letter about a month ago introducing her to the new student.
Naira nodded. “She’s off shopping with a few of the other girls. And, oh my, she’s nothing like any other Sister I’ve met! She’s dressed like a punk rocker, and you can barely understand her when she talks.”
Sophie recalled the skull and bones in the umbrella stand. “Was that her - paddle?”
Naira scoffed. “It’s a cricket bat. She uses it instead of an umbrella.”
Sophie rolled her eyes. “That’s not going to stand out at all.”
Naira shrugged. “Not any more than her get-up.”
Sophie laughed. “I mean, probably easier to sit on, huh?”
They both laughed.
They began to unpack slowly, as they talked about their summers. They took turns hanging up clothes in the closet and putting away their things in drawers.
Sophie lugged a blue case out from her pack and set it down on her bed. She smiled as she opened it, revealing her travel typewriter. She ran her fingers over the keys, before closing it, and placing it in her corner of the room.
“Ladies!” Came the shout from downstairs. “Groceries!”
Sophie and Naira filed out, meeting up with Delfina on the way down the stairs. Plastic bags were piled up in the foyer, and Sophie could see the red wagon outside the open front door.
And then, the new girl stepped inside, a bag in each hand. Her hair was shaped into a bright blonde mohawk, sharply contrasting her dark brown skin. There were multiple piercings in her ears, not to mention a few in her lips, and one in her nostril. She wore a faded tank top, torn up jeans, and steel-toed boots. “Oy, you going to stand there gawking?” She said, her thick brogue making Sophie take a long second to process what she heard. “Or you going to help?”
Sophie closed her jaw and went down the final few stairs to join her, extending her hand. “Hello, I’m Sophie, one of the senior Sisters here. We welcome you to our home.”
The woman took her hand, nodding, before heading back to collect more bags. “Yeah, yeah, got it all before. Name’s Sydney.”
Sophie could only give the briefest acknowledgements to the other girls, her mind fixated on Sydney. She grabbed some bags out of the wagon and walked them inside. “So, you from Glasgow?”
“That’s right.” Sydney’s voice came in, oddly chipper. “The only city in Scotland you know. Nah!” her tone changed instantly, full of sass. “I’m from Paisley. But it’s close enough when it’s that far away.”
Sophie laughed when she saw Sydney’s smile. “You take an ocean liner, or …”
Sydney shook her head. “Actually joined a sailing crew.” Sydney laughed. “Should have seen their faces when the satellite navigator refused to work.”
Sophie smiled, knowingly. “Refused to work, eh? Like you gave it a choice?”
Sydney burst out laughing. “Too right! Luckily, I just happened to have some nautical charts and navigation equipment with me. Can’t afford to take chances.”
Sophie nodded sagely. “No, of course not.” They had begun taking groceries out from the bags, and into the kitchen. It was long, with two gas ovens and stoves, hanging pots and pans, a spice rack that looked more like a bookcase. The only phone in the house was in the kitchen, a wall unit that was a relic from the 70s. It had a long tangled cord knotted up under the hand set. Next to the phone was a long blackboard, smeared with chalk dust. An ancient refrigerator with rounded corners and latches on the doors for the freezer and fridge hummed in an odd baritone in the corner.
As they put food away, Sophie glanced around. “I’ll give you the full tour after we’re done here. You’re probably used to being the only family of Sisters in the neighborhood. We have to do it a little differently with sometimes up to a dozen of us living in one house, all interacting with both the college and the town.”
Sydney shot a suspicious glance. “How do you not kill each other?”
“Well, the fact that we have to put up with ourselves for four years certainly helps."
The team of half a dozen women made short work of the groceries, and then washed their hands.
“Now then,” Sophie began, going into full tour mode. “Obviously the hearth is the heart of the home. But that makes this chalkboard the brain.” She pointed to the long green slate occupying most of the wall next to the phone. “After tonight, we’ll put all our names down one side. If you go on an Errand, you put a tick mark by your name.”
Sophie paused, and looked Sydney up and down. “Pardon my saying, but you know what Errands are, yes? When random people ask for help? I just want to make sure we're using the same word."
Sydney lifted an eyebrow. “Of course we go on Errands. What would people do without Sisters to tend their every little ache, eh?”
“Too right,” Sophie said, trying, and failing, to imitate Sydney’s accent. “Okay then, where were we? Yes, the Sister with the fewest tick marks by her name goes on the next Errand that comes, provided she’s home. Most of them will come over that phone there, although a few will come in person. If you want to trade next Errand, draw an arrow from your name to the Sister you’ve agreed to trade with. Of course, you won’t be going on Errands by yourself until you know your way around campus and town. We’ll show you the town on the upcoming new moon.” Sophie gave Sydney a sly look. “I myself am quite looking forward to seeing that cricket bat of yours in action.”
Sydney rolled her eyes. “Och! It’s just another place to put your arse! No different than an umbrella!”
Sophie stopped mid stride. She shrugged, a quizzical look on her face. “It’s not a - " Sophie paused, looked around to see if the other girls could hear her. She then mouthed the word "weapon".
“Don’t be daft. It’s a toy. For a game. Not its fault that some decide to misuse it as a weapon.”
Sophie mulled the thought around inside her head, her face revealing that she had come to a favorable conclusion.
She walked over to the phone, grabbing the pen and message pad. “If a call is not an Errand but a message for one of the Sisters, write down who called, when, and how to reach them. Then tear it off from the pad and stick it on their posts. We’ll put up all our posts on that ledge under the chalkboard after tonight.”
“Home duties such as cooking, cleaning, shopping, and the garden are performed on rotation which we’ll set up this week. You are responsible for cleaning your room.”
Sophie looked at Sydney. “You’ve been given a room, yes?”
“Okay, as the new term begins tomorrow, tonight we shall put up the wards, all, together.”
“Ah! I was wondering why there weren’t any.”
Sophie shrugged. “Since the makeup here is fluid, and we all leave for the summer, we take down the wards before we go. It’s kind of weird, but this is really an artificial living situation. You’ll get used to it.”
Sophie looked thoughtful for a moment, before snapping back to reality. “Come on, let’s go to the bank, I’ll get you put on to the home account for withdrawals and deposits. Be right back!"
Sophie then saw herself out the kitchen and padded up the stairs.
A moment later, they reconvened at the foyer, Sophie still rearranging the contents of her purse, which was creased from being inside her pack.
Sydney had her bat over her shoulder. Sophie stopped in her tracker. “Oh, honey. You can’t go to a small town bank, dressed like that, carrying a bat.”
Sydney gave her a supercilious look, enhanced by her eyebrow ring. “What do you mean? I’m on my way to tryouts.”
“There’s no cricket tryouts here.” Sophie looked concerned as she put on her boots. “Although, this is a college town. They’re used to all sorts, I bet.” Sophie grabbed her umbrella, and stepped out the front door, Sydney following behind her.
* * *
The sun had long since dipped behind the trees in the west, and now the warm shades in the sky were fading to the cooler colors of night. One by one, the women of Low Tech House walked through all the rooms, turning off electric lights, each carrying a candle.
The ten women then assembled in front of the hearth. Each of them held a candle, and a weighted metal desktop message post. Each message post was personalized with a little charm to signify who it belonged to. Sophie’s had an Egyptian pyramid key chain attached to it. Only Sydney didn’t have one.
“Ladies,” Raquel said, “Let us all light the hearth together.” The candle in her hand dimly lit her black skin, her svelte figure contrasted by her corkscrew coils.
Five Sisters came, using their candles to ignite the kindling under the small pile of logs. They quickly moved aside so the next five could join their candles to the growing flames.
As the hearth began to glow pleasantly, they all moved into the kitchen. “When I call your name, please place your message post on the ledge, and then write your name on the far left hand of the chalkboard, in the grid space provided. I shall start.”
Sophie was called right after Raquel was done, and they quickly moved through all the women.
Sydney was called, and she said, “Should I have brought one?”
Flora shook her head, her long wavy brown tresses bouncing off her tawny face. “All the girls get one from their fellow Sisters when they join the House.” Flora reached into a kitchen drawer and pulled out a post. It had a spiked dog collar attached to it.
“Yes, it’s a dog collar. Please, don’t be offended. It was the only vaguely punk thing I could find around this town.”
Sydney laughed. “No worries! I feel the sincerity of your heart. I love it!” She took her post, examined it lovingly, and then gently placed it at the last spot in the ledge, before writing in her name.
Flora nodded. “All right. All are home. The fire is lit. Our posts are out. Our names are written. Our umbrellas stand at the ready by the door.”
Sydney cleared her throat.
“And cricket bats, where applicable.”
“Let us protect our home, our sanctuary, with wards of peace, safety, and health.”
The girls closed their eyes and reached out, intermingling their thoughts and senses.