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Ella Minnow Pea, Page 3

Mark Dunn

  I have some news. It is too early to know what to make of it. Or how the Council will proceed. But the possibility does exist that scales may soon fall from the eyes of the esteemed H.I.C., and they might see their way to rescinding this horrible law.

  I base this belief, dear cousin, on something that has just occurred: another tile has dropped from the cenotaph: The tile upon which was etched the letter “q” (from the word “quick”).

  A shopkeeper witnessed the event, and made the report. The Council went into emergency closed-door session. They may emerge in minutes, or it could be several hours. They have requested a large platter of crullers and Danish.




  Saturday, August 19

  Dear Ella,

  We had heard about the second fallen tile. We hope and pray that the Council will come to its senses on the matter.

  Last night Mother and I attended a very emotional meeting of our Village’s Parents and Teachers Association. Through bitter tears Babette Creevy related the details of the banishment of her son. Initially, the boy refused to go. While his father pleaded to the L.E.B. thug-uglies to ignore young William’s boldly insolent hurlatory, to Willy’s mother fell the difficult task of propelling her son with every ounce of maternal passion onto the boat that would serve both as his transport to permanent exile, and, paradoxically, the very instrument of his survival.

  Those who witnessed the incident agreed with Babette’s account of parental paralysis in the face of naked martial tyranny.

  A rage burns deep within me, dear Ella, the likes of which I have never felt before. Yet collaterally a terrible fear has taken hold, robbing me of any thought of recourse. While I want to believe that the self-destruction of the second tile will bring the Exalted Quintet to its collective senses, the very real possibility exists that they could – these self-proclaimed High and Almighties – find in its demise true validation for their earlier decree and convenient justification for its subsequentia. And we sit powerless to convince them otherwise.

  Please write me as soon as you know something. Mother and I feel so isolated here in the Village. While we still receive the weak signal of the limited island radio broadcasts, music is almost all that is sent up to us these days. Music without words. The station management, I assume, does not wish to examine song lyrics for words containing the outlawed letter. Besides making us all fearful, this edict has turned some among us into shameful indolents.

  And if I hear “Tijuana Taxi” one more time, I am going to scream!

  Your cousin,


  PS. Thanks bunches for the birthday card. And thank you for adhering to my wishes and not sending a present. One small, mischievous joy during these otherwise joyless times is finding myself a year older than you for five whole months, although nineteen feels little different from eighteen if you want the truth of it.


  Monday, August 21

  Dear Tassie,

  No doubt, the latest edict has reached the village by post or has been tacked to the proclamata board on your Village commons. At the cusp of midnight on August 27/28, as you surely know by now, the letter “Q” will be stricken from our vocabulary as utterly and thoroughly as was its hapless predecessor.

  I am incapable of any reaction beyond that which I have previously registered with you. Life, no doubt, will change little from what we now know; as luck would have it, there are simply not all that many words in the English language which claim this letter among its constituents. I am in agreement with you that as our anger against the Council grows, it has yet to exceed in potency the abject fear which invades all aspects of our readjusted lives.

  There have been whispers of a Council recall; yet few, if any, among us know how to effect such a thing. Legal recall was, even prior to the incineration of the relevant statutes, a complicated process, and now, in the absence of written guidelines, remains a virtual impossibility. Others have whispered of a military coup. Yet the Island L.E.B. is handsomely paid and well provided for. I can see little to entice these officers to overthrow a government that has for the most part been both friend and ample provider, let alone an exemplar of political stability for most of its one hundred-and-thirty year history in the hemisphere.

  We have at present no recourse but to mind our p’s and bury our q’s, and try our best to eke out some crumbs of normalcy from our turvied lives.

  Without, I am sad to report, an island newspaper. The editor and publisher of The Tribune, Mr. Kleeman, has, in one grand and glorious protest, put out his final issue, and ignoring his family’s rich island heritage, voluntarily departed this cursed sandbar. But not before publishing and leafletting this town with hundreds of copies of a most special swan song edition, carrying the apt title, “The Bees’ Lament” – being a delightful four-page conversation between two bees marooned upon a keeperless farm. The paper – I wish I could have sent you a copy, but destroyed it quickly after Mum and Pop and I shared a tearful laugh – contains, below the masthead and the aforementioned title, the frenetic repetition of a certain letter – four thousand, perhaps five thousand glorious times!

  I do respect Mr. Kleeman for his protest, yet am disappointed by the cowardly exit. He has left this town with a yawning communicational chasm – a great lacuna which I see no one stepping forward to fill.

  I wish you could come for a visit. We have room for you here at the house, should you desire to stay for a while to seek employment, or perhaps find volunteer work at our library. Happily, its doors are still open. Most of the books are gone, though – the periodicals as well. But many of the musical albums remain (without their jackets or labels). And the picture books that still reside here are quite colorful and not all that unpleasant to look at.

  Give my love to your mother. (Perhaps I will see you soon?)

  Your cousin,



  Tuesday, August 22

  Dear Ella,

  I just may take you up on that invitation! You know how I feel living up here – so removed from things.

  I look forward to visiting with Aunt Gwenette and Uncle Amos as well. I cannot wait to see your father’s burgeoning collection of petite vases and jugs!

  Did I mention – I have become a volunteer teaching assistant, and am helping Mother at the school. I miss the library, though, and the opportunity to read whatever I wish – whenever I so desire. I compensate for this loss by reading your letters over and over again; and Mother and I have taken to writing one another – if you can believe it – from one room to the next! She tells wonderful stories of our mothers’ childhoods – all their little adventures – beachcombing for shells and driftwood, chasing sand crabs about (How cruel the two of them were as children!) and building majestic sand palaces at low tide.

  I know it was necessary when I was a toddler and Father had gone away, for Mother to move us to the Village to take the teaching job, but I have never warmed to this dismal and dreary place, and I will be happy (Do not tell Mother.) to leave it and never return.

  Ellakins, I must tell you: I have taken to sitting in a favorite spot on a secret hillside outside the Village to think. And dream. And watch the shapings of the clouds and feel the caress of our soft, late-summer wind wisps. Some evenings I do not return home until long after dark. Yesterday I was even naughtier than usual: I carved the dreaded letter in the bark of a lonely mimosa, carved it with a kitchen knife in great broad slashes of impertinence and had myself a delicious clandestine laugh. And I must say, it did me a world of good.

  Perhaps I will take a page from your book and recite poetry.

  I think sometimes of departing the island for good. But I’m not so sure I could leave Mother who seems to need me so much now. I had such lovely visits with Father’s family in Savannah and Charleston, and while I felt somewhat the foreigner (My cousins say that I speak in a “funny,” overly formal way, whatever this means.), I thi
nk sometimes how lovely it would be to live across the channel – like my paternal cousins. With telephones that actually work, and television and computers and books – all the books one could ever hope to read. But I wonder, as well, how much of my present disagreeableness and languor (even prior to this lexical crisis) is due to the simple fact that I have no one with whom to share my life – no companion, romantic affiliation or otherwise, save my mother. I am, I will admit, a tragic village lonely-heart at the advanced age of nineteen!

  Cousin Ella, I must relate something that has happened which Mother has made me vow not to divulge. Yet I cannot honor her wishes on the matter, for I can no longer bear my concerns for her alone. Please share the following with your mother, but do share it in careful confidence. Perhaps Aunt Gwenette may advise me as to how I might be of sufficient succor to her.

  You see, Mother has spoken the letter.

  She has spoken the letter in the presence of her class – there, before her young pupils – and it did not go without report. One student, I am sorry to relate, took it upon himself to inform his parents, and they in turn, took it upon themselves to inform a representative of the villagers’ volunteer auxiliary of the L.E.B. Yesterday morning Mother was brought before the faculty assembly and publicly issued citation and harsh reprimand. Before every teacher in the school was she called forth and cited with first offense, then mortifyingly reminded by captain of the auxiliary of the penalty for second offense. Mother was humiliated before colleagues whose respect she had earned and maintained for many years, word, no doubt, trickling down to her young charges whose respect, as well, is critical to the performance of her duties as their instructor.

  She spoke hardly a word to me last night, and retired early. She is equally subdued this morning. I wish there were something I could do to help her. But the incident has brought her so low that I know of absolutely nothing that might elevate her spirits. I want to come to town and stay with you and Aunt Gwenette and Uncle Amos, but now must wait until Mother’s emotional state has improved.

  I believe that I will write a letter to the boy’s parents to find out exactly what purpose was served in reporting Mother, given the enormous difficulty island teachers face in their efforts to avoid just such a slip as the one my mother experienced. A different law should be passed for teachers, if you ask me.

  There should be a special waiver or accommodation extended not only to seven-year olds but also to those who are asked to instruct them.

  I will write again soon. Please do not mention in your next letter to Mother what I have just told you. She will discuss it with you, I am certain, when she is ready. When the shame of it has sufficiently ebbed.


  Your cousin Tassie

  PS. I did not tell you how the slip occurred. She was teaching arithmetic and made mention of a sum of eggs. Twelve eggs to be exact. And described them using a word no longer at our disposal. A right and proper word in times gone by. How DOES, IN any fair and logical way, the Council expect us – all of us – not to make such a simple and innocent slip every now and then!


  Wednesday, August 23

  Dear Niece,

  I am so sorry to hear from Ella of my sister’s recent misfortune. The odds were that it would happen sooner or later. She must try doubly hard to be more careful in what she says to those students of hers. Little rabbits have big ears. Especially in light of the fact that as of Monday we will be pressed to avoid yet another clutch of outlawed words. Your mother and my beloved sister, I must say, will look not at all becoming in wooden headstock!

  As for how to assist her in her present state of despondency, I can offer no advice but that you continue to be the kind and understanding daughter I know you are, and give her the time she needs to find her way back to her former sunny disposition. I know that sometimes it takes your dear mother a while to recover from episodes of abashment – especially ones so public. But I assure you, recover she will. She is intrinsically resilient. We all are.

  We have no party planned for Sunday night. We will let the midnight chime usher in this new micro-era in our island history with neither comment nor incident. Amos and I will, no doubt, be fast asleep when the fateful hour arrives. (I’m not sure of Ella’s plans for that evening.) Before retiring, though, I shall turn to my dear husband and say, “Today we queried, questioned, and inquired. Promise me that come tomorrow, we will not stop asking why.” And Amos, being Amos, will chuckle and perhaps respond, “We’ll never stop asking, dear. Now to sleep. Quiet, dear. Quiet, quiet. To sleep.”

  Your aunt loves you,


  Ella here: I plan to be asleep as well. I am working longer hours at the launderette now. All of these emigrating islanders are so insistent upon packing only the most spanking clean clothes into their trunks and suitcases. I do not blame them, but it is exhausting work!





  The *uick brown fox jumps over the la*y dog


  Monday, August 28

  Dear Mr. & Mrs. Towgate,

  I am Tassie Purcy, daughter of Mrs. Mittie Purcy, your son Timmy’s teacher. I am writing to ask why you felt it necessary to report my mother’s slip of the tongue to the island authorities. Mistakes will be made by all of us during these trying times, and it is my belief that latitude should be extended to those like my mother who are employed in professions in which one is called upon to speak for long, wearying periods and through a wide swath of subject areas.

  I believe there was an element of cruelty in what you did, the source of which I now seek your assistance in dowsing. My mother has done nothing to harm any member of your family, and has been especially attentive and helpful to your son Timmy who is a restless student and a slow learner.

  This whole incident has distressed her greatly. Please explain why it was necessary.


  Tassie Purcy


  Tuesday, August 29

  Dear Miss Purcy,

  We are sorry that the performance of our civic duty has resulted in distress to your mother. We assure you that it was not our intent to single her out for any specific harm, nor was the report made in retaliation for any wrong which we feel was done to our son Timmy or to any other member of our village clan by your mother.

  We believe, Miss Purcy, as you obviously do not, that there is full cause and merit to the statutes recently passed by the Island Council. We believe, further, that Nollop does indeed speak to us from his place of eternal rest, through the manipulation of the tiles upon his hallowed cenotaph, and that the Council serves only as his collective interpreter. If I understand correctly, it is your belief that the two restrictions recently imposed upon the residents of this island have been fashioned for some purpose to which Nollop is not even party. A fairly blasphemous position you hold, if I may be so bold. If such were the case, would not the Council exempt itself from such restrictions? And yet, I know, as you must, that our Council members ask nothing of us that they are not willing to ask of themselves.

  My wife Georgeanne and I are happy to see members of the Island Council continue to serve as sole diviners of the will of Nollop. (For who should know better than the most sage among us?) Perhaps you and your mother fancy yourselves standing upon the same high plain. Know this: such a self-delusional position can only serve to isolate you from the rest of this community at a time when we ought to be meeting our challenges in full union and concert.

  Why do we follow, without misgiving, the will of Nollop? Simply because without him this island would be a shallow shell, an empty conch compared to what it has, in fact, become: a beautiful, sandy-shored haven of enchantment and delishmerelle. And without whom the world would never have been given the foxy-dog sentence we have all grown to cherish (but which, naturally,
until instructed otherwise, we must no longer speak or write in its entirety.)

  Your mother should essay to be more careful in the future.


  Nash Towgate

  Dear Tassie Purcy,

  I must insert this note with my husband’s letter, and state, first, that I am in full accord with the sentiments contained therein. I sincerely believe, as do several who have joined me for bi-weekly talk group sessions, that Nollop, as one who put great emphasis upon the word, is now attempting to pry us away from our traditional heavipendence on linguistic orthodoxy. Through this challenge, he hopes to move us away from lexical discourse as we now know it, and toward the day in which we can relate to one another in sweet pureplicity through the taciteries of the heart. Brilliant in life – now brilliant eternal in his conveyances from Beyond!

  With all cordiality,

  Georgeanne Towgate

  PS. If you and your mother wish to join our talk groups you would be most welcome; we gather in my front parlor each Tuesday and Thursday evening at 7:30.

  PPS. As an additional demonstration that there is absolutely no ill will being extended to your mother by anyone within the Towgate household, please accept, as well, my invitation to the both of you to join me and other villagers-artistically-inclined for our bimonthly Monday night tempera bees. (Until last week these were weekly gatherings, but too many among our membership wished to be released to attend the newly established Village Women’s Humming Chorus.)