If the purpose of education is to reshape the self, carving and digging like a whittler’s blade, then my education surely began on a glimmering autumn morning in 1958 when I heard myself called “giant” for the first time.
As a special treat, Serena Jane woke me up early that morning and fixed me a proper breakfast–cereal, toast, and a glass of milk. “Be glad Dad remembered groceries,” she said, sliding the food across the table to me. “Half the time I go to school with a rumbling belly, but I’ve learned to live with it.”
I knew what she was talking about. The more I grew, the hungrier I got, and we never had much food in the house. Serena Jane brushed toast crumbs from her lips and stood up, holding out her hand. She was being so nice to me this morning, it was almost as if she were a different girl. “Come on, I’ll brush your hair before we go, but we have to hurry.” When it came to the issue of being on time, Serena Jane was as tightly wound as the steel hand of a stopwatch. She rushed me everywhere we went, but I tried not to mind. It was just her way of saying she was the boss of us in life.
She whipped a comb through my hair, rubbed my shoes with some spit and a tissue, and then I let her propel me out the front door, waiting while she dutifully turned the key and locked it. We trundled down the sidewalk past Sal Dunfry’s house and then past the Pickertons’, but when we passed the cemetery, I dug in my heels and stopped cold, as immovable as a mule.
I almost never came by my mother’s grave, but now, in the early morning’s golden sunlight, I could see the white square of her headstone winking at me, and before Serena Jane could say boo, I’d torn my hand from hers and dashed through the iron gates. “Truly, wait!” Serena Jane called, her voice a hollow reed in the distance, but I kept going to the plot where our mother was buried. I couldn’t say why I needed to kneel on the grass, brushing my hands along the tops of weeds, but the action calmed me. If I closed my eyes, it was almost as though my mother were alive, stroking my hands and telling me things would be fine, that I would love school.
I felt a sharp yank on the back of my collar, and then Serena Jane was leaning over me like an impatient crow, asking me what on earth I thought I was doing. “You do realize that there’s a whole living world waiting on us, don’t you, Truly? I swear, sometimes I think that head of yours is really a pumpkin or something.” Sadly, I patted the grass one last time, then got up and followed her.
Eventually, we arrived at the one-room schoolhouse, and Serena Jane ushered me up the steps by the hand but dropped my wrist as soon as we were inside. Even though my sister was two years older than me, I was taller. Over the past year, I had shot up so fast, I was two inches bigger and pounds heavier. It seemed that the nearer I came to Serena Jane in size, the more distant and unlike me she grew. She hung her sweater on one of the coat pegs and smoothed her collar, her eyes scanning the yard through the open door for the friends I’d heard about but whom she never brought home. “Stay here,” she said, turning her back. “I’ll come back and tell you what to do soon.”
“But I want to come with you.” I wanted to follow my sister but knew I would be banished. I felt tears fill my eyes.
Serena Jane pursed her lips, considering. More than anything, I knew, she hated it when I cried, not because she felt pity, but because she hated the sensation of guilt. It was the one weapon I had over her, but I used it only in times of duress. Serena Jane sighed and held out her hand again. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, all right, if you’re going to be like that about it. Just don’t say anything, and you have to do exactly what I tell you.”
Just then, however, a bell rang, sending the raspy scent of chalk dust, glue, and freshly sharpened pencils deep into my cortex. A hawk-eyed woman in a sweater set marched to the front of the room. Serena Jane guided me to a row of desks. “Sit here,” she whispered, and pointed to the desk next to her. It was nicked and so old that it still had an inkwell. I squeezed my thighs into the seat as best I could and folded my hands up like a tent. I looked over to my sister, but she was staring straight ahead, her ankles crossed, her fingers all lined up evenly, the model student.
All that morning, I learned how much I didn’t know. The alphabet for starters–a string of crazy angles and curves with a lilting, singsong tune. How to write my name. The numbers from ten to twenty. How many sides a pentagon had. My head swelled with facts like a gutter after a rainstorm. The bell clanged again, and the children started filing outside for morning recess. Once again, I followed my sister. Through the open door I could spy the generous leaves of the chestnut tree fluttering, and I yearned to go and stand under it, listening to its chatter. Serena Jane and I were almost through the door when the teacher’s voice snapped through the air like a crocodile tail sweeping for prey.
“Girls. A moment, if you please.”
Serena Jane sighed and watched the other girls huddle into groups. She took me by the wrist again and returned to the front of the classroom. When my sister and I stood side by side like that, her chin was level with my shoulder. “Yes, ma’am,” we said.
The teacher sniffed. Her lips bunched themselves up like bees. “Which one of you is Truly?”
Serena Jane pointed at me. “She is.”
“And how old are you, child?” I half raised my hand. The teacher flicked her eyes down to the roster in her hand, then back to me again. I held my palm up higher, all five of my fingers extended, eager as soldiers before a battle. The teacher squeezed her eyes open and shut. “But this can’t be right. You’re a little giant!” I blushed. It was a word I’d heard before in fairy stories, wherein magic stalks grew out of regular dried beans, ordinary geese laid jewel-encrusted eggs, and enchanted harps sung of their own accord. To me, it was a word that swirled with extraordinary promises of castle spires and treasure chests.
That’s not how the teacher said it, though. She spat the word through the front of her teeth, as if she were expelling used toothpaste. “Huge!” she elaborated. “Surely it’s not normal.” Serena Jane and I blinked at her. It wasn’t normal not to have a mother, either, or to have a father who drank beer at breakfast, but we did, and we put up with those things, just as we put up with hand-me-down clothes, and no birthday parties, and Christmas without a tree. The bell rang again, and the teacher put the roster back down on her desk. “Recess is over,” she said, as if she were flicking a fly off her shoulder. “But this discussion is not. Please come and see me when the school day is over.” My sister and I shuffled back to our desks in the center of the room. Maybe Serena Jane managed to learn something that afternoon, but I didn’t. My mind was stuck on a single phrase, like a shoe in gum, and I knew that no matter how hard I tried, I’d never be able to pull it loose. Little giant. The words rolled around and around in my empty head, my education stalled before it got started.
The teacher was named Miss Sparrow. Fresh-faced out of a ladies’ seminary, she was new in town and thus unfamiliar with the peculiarities lurking among some of Aberdeen’s children. Which was unfortunate because she was exposed to them all at once. Aberdeen’s population was so small that its children were educated together in one classroom, with the older pupils helping the younger ones. Miss Sparrow, who hailed from the comparative metropolis of Albany, found the entire concept charming when Dick Crane, Aberdeen’s youthful mayor, described it to her in a job interview in the seminary’s chintz tearoom.
“How adorable!” she’d exclaimed, inhaling her Darjeeling and fluttering her long eyelashes at a man she guessed was at least eight years younger. “How very basic!” And Dick Crane, charmed himself by the length of Miss Sparrow’s delicate legs (whose allure belied her thirty-five years), sipped his tea and neglected to correct her vision of a rural Arcadia.
In 1958, Aberdeen was stuck somewhere between a village and a town. Its sidewalks had weedy cracks that gaped bigger every winter. The bells at the firehouse sometimes locked when the weather was damp, and the newspaper had quit printing its Saturday edition. There was still a recreational softball team, a ladies’ gardening committee, and a brick library, but the team never won, the collective age of the gardening committee was four hundred and seven, and the print in half the books in the library was so faded and smeared, it was no longer legible.
Even the town trees were looking a little stunted. Starting in early autumn, their leaves merely mottled and dropped instead of igniting into the traditional yellows and reds. On the first day of school, the steps leading into the school hall were already so slimy with desiccated foliage that Miss Sparrow had to stop and scrape the smooth bottoms of her spectator pumps back and forth across the door lintel. When she looked up, she discovered Marcus Thompson, the smartest and smallest boy in school, skulking behind the globe on her desk.
“Oh–but–my goodness,” she gasped, for Marcus had the general appearance of a garden gnome.
“Hello,” he spat through a gap in his buckteeth. “I came to clap erasers.”
Miss Sparrow smoothed a manicured hand over her abdomen and sucked herself a little taller. “Of course.” She smiled, her Satin Primrose lips blooming into a harsh curve like a sickle. “How sweet. I’m Miss Sparrow, the new teacher.” She stepped behind the desk to escape Marcus, but he was not to be thwarted. He enthusiastically began to bang the felt erasers, releasing a maelstrom of chalk and dust.
“It’s like intergalactic dust,” he crowed, screwing up his face to watch the white particles fly. “Maybe this is what Laika saw out the window of her capsule.”
Miss Sparrow coughed. “Who?”
Marcus increased his pounding. “Laika. You know. The Russian space dog. I read all about her in the paper.”
Miss Sparrow put down her fist. “You can read?”
“Oh sure! Laika was on Sputnik Two, which orbited the earth two thousand five hundred and seventy times.” His brow furrowed, and he momentarily halted the erasers. “All the scientists are always talking about sending a man into space, but I think Laika is the real hero. She died, though, you know.”
Miss Sparrow frowned and brushed dust from her hair and camel skirt. “The Russians are not our friends, young man.”
Marcus considered this. “Does that mean we should be glad when their space dogs die?”
Miss Sparrow did not get a chance to answer, for the rest of the children tumbled into the schoolroom in a noisy knot. Marcus’s dust set off a towheaded boy’s asthma. Immediately he began gasping and wheezing, his poor lungs squeezing themselves like faulty bellows, his aspirin-colored face blooming into a dusky pink.
“Marcus Thompson!” Vi Vickers scolded, holding the gasping child by the elbow. “Stop it! You know you’re supposed to do that outside!”
Maybe Serena Jane managed to learn something that afternoon, but I didn’t. My mind was stuck on a single phrase, like a shoe in gum, and I knew that no matter how hard I tried, I’d never be able to pull it loose.
Miss Sparrow looked at Vi and saw a strawberry-sized birthmark ringing her left eye, giving her a surprised expression. But Vi Vickers was one of the older students in the class. Almost nothing surprised her anymore. She escorted the coughing boy outside, her left eye startled and amazed, her mouth caved into a bored sulk.
When Marcus’s genie cloud of dust settled, Miss Sparrow got a good look at the rest of her class and was relieved to see that several of the girls were even very pretty. She noted with pleasure which of them had on smocked dresses for the first day of school and which of them had new ribbons braided into their hair, which of the boys’ cowlicks had been pasted down with Brylcreem so their heads shone like angels. All in all, she surmised to herself, running her red-tipped fingers down the tiny shell buttons of her cardigan, they were workable. Hope began beating again in the birdcage of her breast. Then the door flew open, and the prettiest child Miss Sparrow had ever seen descended upon her, holding the hand of the ugliest.
But surely your family must have seen a doctor,” Miss Sparrow said to my sister as we continued our conversation after school, giving my bulk the same critical eye the judges used on the heifers at a county fair. I shifted, adding to Miss Sparrow’s bovine assessment of me.
It didn’t help that, for once, I was dressed as a girl. In a fit of compassion, Mrs. Pickerton had sewn me a school wardrobe of dull brown pinafores, army green skirts with suspenders, and tan blouses. As attire went, it was a prison sentence–a solitary confinement of the soul. On me, the pleated skirt and Peter Pan collar looked cartoonish, almost freakish, the product of a sewing pattern gone terribly wrong. In fact, Mrs. Pickerton had had to increase the measurements by four, resulting in circuslike proportions that did nothing to hide my lumps and bumps. I hung my head and let my sister do all the talking.
“We don’t go to the doctor,” Serena Jane told Miss Sparrow, her voice as sweet as a dulcimer, but flat, too, as if the notes hit were just slightly the wrong ones for the music.
Miss Sparrow shook her head, as if trying to dislodge water from her ears. “Why, what do you mean you don’t go to the doctor? What happens if you get sick?”
Serena Jane shrugged. “We don’t.”
“You don’t get sick?”
Serena Jane shrugged again. “Not real bad.”
Miss Sparrow smoothed a nonexistent wrinkle out of her lap and took a deep breath. “But surely you must have noticed that something is, ah, not right with your younger sister. Surely your mother must have wanted to know what was wrong with her.” Miss Sparrow’s eyes flitted from the fairy child to the ugly duckling. I shuffled my feet and bowed my head farther.
“Our mother’s dead.” This time, Serena Jane’s eyes went flat to match her voice.
“Oh, I see.” Miss Sparrow squinted at me, as if by reducing the size of her gaze, she could also shrink me. I could tell she still found it hard to believe that Serena Jane was related to me. She reached into her desk for a piece of paper and her enamel fountain pen, which showed to very best advantage her prize-winning penmanship. She looped her hand across the page, making elaborate dips and swirls, then blew on the ink to dry it and folded the note into an envelope.
“Here,” she said, giving it to Serena Jane. “Take this home to your father tonight. It says that you have to see the doctor if you want to come to school this year. You need your shots, and a hearing test, and a checkup. The board of education has its rules, and we can’t just ignore things like that, can we?” She eyeballed my fantastic bulk again. Clearly, I was out of the bounds of normality. Why, I was an absolute giant, and although Miss Sparrow was more than expert at cutting people down to size, she was also certain that anything of my magnitude just wasn’t in her job description.
What’s this?” my father asked when Serena Jane handed him the note over supper that night. He unfolded the paper slowly, as if unwrapping an ancient map, and squinted to decipher Miss Sparrow’s florid script.
In the years since my mother’s death, my father had melted and spread around his edges like an ice-cream cone halfway through consumption. Everything about him seemed to be dripping, heading straight back to the ground–an impression only reinforced by his lamentable personal hygiene. His wrinkled trousers sagged over his backside and dipped beneath his buttery belly. His shirttails hung defeated. The cracked tongues of his shoes lolled. Even his shoelaces straggled on the ground in perpetual surrender. Customers in the barbershop were reluctant to let him near their hair, choosing instead one of the more youthful employees who had found their way into the shop. My father didn’t mind.
Clearly, I was out of the bounds of normality. Why, I was an absolute giant, and although Miss Sparrow was more than expert at cutting people down to size, she was also certain that anything of my magnitude just wasn’t in her job description.
He had grown weary of pompadours, and ducktails, and handlebar mustaches. He was like a baker who never ate sweets, or a goldsmith who wore only silver. He spent most of the day hunched in the corner of the shop, reading the papers and checking the racing reports. He’d made a small bundle betting against woeful horses, but he never told anyone his secret. He simply took the money home and shoved it in a shoebox under his bed.
He placed Miss Sparrow’s note on the table in front of him, where the corner came to rest in an ignoble drop of tomato sauce. Most nights, I made the dinner and ate it alone. I just opened whatever jars I found in the cupboards and poured the contents onto plates. Then I sat at the table by myself, sucking olives off my fingertips or swirling a pinkie around the rim of a tapioca pudding can, while my father lolled on the busted sofa across the room. On the nights he did come to the table, it always left me feeling a little uneasy, as if I were faced with a volatile, uninvited guest. He burped once, lightly, and leaned over closer to Serena Jane.
“Did you tell this teacher we don’t see the doctor?” he asked, blinking at her in the room’s squalid light, as if she were an angel descended in the wrong location–an assessment of herself that Serena Jane seemed to share. She nodded.
“And did you tell her why?” he persisted.
“I told her Mama was dead.” Small reserves of spittle gathered in the corners of my father’s mouth. Two of his teeth were broken. The rest were as yellow as old socks. “Did you tell her it’s because the doctor stood by while your mama was dying and didn’t do a damn thing to help her?” He smoothed his fingers over the surface of the teacher’s letter. Watching him, I had the urge to cover his hand with mine, trapping his battered knuckles in the cage of my palm and holding them tight until they smoothed again into the reasonable knobs I remembered. My father pounded his fist on the table. “We don’t need no witch doctor. We’ve been just fine without him.” His gaze ricocheted back and forth between the miracle of physical arrangement that was Serena Jane and the mystery that was me. “Not a lick of your mother in you,” he said, then chuckled. “More like three licks. No wonder Lily died pushing you out. Hell, you’d block a barn door.” He doubled over, coughing, then remained that way, his beer can balanced on his knee, halfway between upright and spilling over. I had an urge to kick it and watch the liquid go flying. After one of my father’s harangues, I always felt like one of our sour-smelling, holey dishrags thrown in the corner of the sink. I thought about the X-ray glasses advertised on the back of the cereal box we’d bought last week. Right then, I wished my father could have put them on. Then maybe he would have seen that I was more like my mother than it appeared. Instead, he burped and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “Just fine,” he repeated into the empty air, ignoring the tiny razor teeth that were nibbling at my soul and quietly eliminating it, making me small in spite of my heft. Making me less than half the girl I wanted to be.
Dr. Robert Morgan’s office smelled of rubbing alcohol, and peppermint, and dispenser soap. It was the way I imagined the tops of mountains would smell–rarefied, antiseptic, frosted. Everything in the office was cold. The stainless-steel sink, where chilly beads of water clustered and shook like frightened fairies. The linoleum floor, which numbed my feet through my socks. The row of callipered instruments lined up on a metal tray according to shape and size. Even the leather examining table was cold. I shifted my weight on it, and the paper underneath my buttocks and thighs crinkled. I tried to pull my thin cotton gown together around my midsection, but the fabric resisted, gaping open like a laughing mouth all the way down the back of me.
Embarrassed, I put my hands in my lap and waited. Across the room, the door flew open. Above the thick black rims of his glasses, Dr. Robert Morgan had the complicated eyebrows of a fairy-tale huntsman. I stared at his eyes–watery, bloodshot around their edges, but gentle–and decided I didn’t mind. That man in the stories was always kind. He saved Snow White from the evil Queen. He rescued Red Riding Hood from the moist jaws of the Wolf. If a huntsman brandished his ax, I knew, you should stay still and let him do his work. Dr. Morgan lifted the hinged metal cover of his clipboard and peered at the papers underneath it, as if peeking at a script to remind himself how to start a conversation. He paced over to the little counter and balanced the clipboard on its edge. I waited to see if it would fall, but it didn’t.
“Hello, Truly.” He stretched one of his long-fingered hands in my general direction. “We haven’t met in a very long time. Since you were born, in fact. You’ve grown up quite a lot since then.” I ducked my head.
“Mrs. Pickerton says I’m growing too much. She said I’m even too big to wear the devil’s britches. She makes my school clothes.” I could feel my cheeks flush scarlet, which made them mottle and blotch. When Serena Jane blushed, it just made her more beautiful. Dr. Morgan wiggled his stethoscope into his ears and lifted the disk. “Mrs. Pickerton is an old nanny goat,” he said, and pressed the circle to my chest. He listened as I took careful breaths, but after a few minutes, his smile turned into a slight frown. He moved the disk of the stethoscope down a few inches. “Interesting,” he said, snapping the earpieces back down around his collarbone. “I’d like to weigh you.” He led me over to the upright scale in the corner and showed me how the metal balance slid back and forth on its incremental metal bar, smallest to biggest. I pinched my gown together behind me and stepped on the scale. The balance stopped halfway. “Very good,” Dr. Morgan said again, scribbling something on the clipboard. “Just stay there, please. I’m going to measure you.” He slid another steel bar along a vertical ruler until it rested flat against my head. “Uh-huh,” he said, squinting and scribbling. “Interesting,” he repeated. I liked the way he said it, chopping up the syllables–in-te-rest-ing–so that I felt like a puzzle he was slotting together in his mind. I was used to plenty of people staring at me, but no one had ever paid such deliberate attention to me before. My father saw me only through the haze of his evening beers. Serena Jane mostly ignored me. Brenda Dyerson, who watched me while my father worked, was busy with a hundred things in her falling-down house, and kept me pinned firmly in her peripheral vision, along with her daughter, Amelia, who was always so close to me that we could touch hands without blinking but who never said a word, just smiled from time to time, offering me her broken toys when she was done playing with them. And while it was true that Mrs. Pickerton focused on certain bits of me with the ferocity of an enraged wolverine, they only ever seemed to be the bad bits. Until then, no one had ever bothered to scrutinize the whole mass of me, connecting neckbone to backbone, shinbone to anklebone, in an entire picture. I felt as if I were a rare and beautiful insect being inspected through a magnifying glass. Maybe, I thought, Dr. Morgan will give me a name for what makes me different. Maybe if he could classify me, I would know what to make of myself and know what to say when people gawped at me as if I were the prize exhibit in the county fair. My heart beat a little faster with anticipation.
Dr. Morgan patted my knee and gazed at me over the rims of his glasses. They were scientist’s spectacles–square and thick and utterly reasonable. If I put them on, I wondered, would the world fall in order?
I climbed back on the table and let Dr. Morgan whack me in the knees and elbows with a small, rubber tomahawk. He wound a tape measure around my forehead, my chest, and my thighs. More numbers flew from his pencil into the clipboard. He shone a penlight and watched my pupils contract and expand–twin universes being born and dying right in the center of me. He peered into my nostrils and ears. He thumped, and prodded, and poked. He had me cover one eye and read nonsense letters off a chart. When I switched hands, the letters scattered and wheeled like magpies in a field.
“Do you ever feel dizzy or faint?” Dr. Morgan ran his thumbs down the sides of my neck. I shook my head. “Short of breath? Tired? Extremely thirsty?” I shook my head again. No, no, and no, although it wasn’t true. My heart did sometimes heave and thump in my chest as if it had a mind of its own, but I didn’t know how to explain that to the doctor. Also, I wanted him to write that everything was fine with me for Miss Sparrow. A wild animal heart and regular dizzy spells weren’t going to get me the correct diagnosis.
Dr. Morgan slammed down the cover of the clipboard. “Okay, Truly.” He patted my knee and gazed at me over the black rims of his glasses. “We’re all done here.” They were scientist’s spectacles–square and thick and utterly reasonable. If I put them on, I wondered, would I see everything in angles and perfect straight lines? Would the world fall in order? Dr. Morgan handed me my limp pile of clothes. “You can get dressed. I’ll just wait outside, and then I want to talk to your father.” I took my clothes. They were my weekend boy clothes: dungarees, a plaid shirt, wool hunting socks. They hung in my hand like a shed skin. I looked up at Dr. Morgan and took a deep breath. “Am I a giant?” Dr. Morgan turned back to me, his hand on the doorknob.
“A giant? Why, wherever did you hear that?”
“Miss Sparrow. She said there must be something wrong with me. She said I’m too big to believe.” Dr. Morgan crossed back over to me. He took off his glasses and wiped them carefully, swirling the corner of his white coat around and around each pane of glass, clearing it, making it shine. “Is that why she sent you here?” he finally asked. My bottom lip quivered. I nodded. Dr. Morgan patted my shoulder with the absentminded rhythm of a mother soothing a child. “You shouldn’t listen to people like Miss Sparrow, or Mrs. Pickerton, either. They don’t have medical degrees. They have no idea what they’re saying.” He tipped my chin up and wiped my tears away with the pad of his thumb. His fingers were surprisingly warm. “Have you ever heard of the pituitary gland?” I shook my head. He moved his fingers to the base of my skull and tapped, marking the spot as if he were going on a treasure hunt. “It’s like a little clock in your brain. It sends out messages to your body about when to grow and how fast. Some people have a slow clock, so they don’t grow very much. Those are the little people in the world. And some people, like you, are in a hurry to get as big as you can as fast as you can. It’s like your body is in a race against everyone else’s, and it’s determined to win. The regular people in the world, all the ones in the middle who aren’t special in any way, well, some of them don’t like it, that’s all.They’re jealous,Truly. They don’t know what to make of you.”
I blinked at him. “Are you a witch doctor?”
He threw back his head and laughed, the rough sounds rolling out of him like bark off a log. “Who told you that?”
“My daddy. He said we don’t need no witch doctor. But you don’t look like a witch to me. Besides, I thought witches were girls.”
Dr. Morgan smiled. “So they are, Truly. So they are. And one day, you, too, might grow up to be enchanting. You and that pretty sister of yours. Now get dressed and I’ll take you home.” He crossed the room and closed the door behind him, taking his clipboard and pencil away, along with whatever kind of conclusion he’d drawn about me.
Tiffany Baker lives in the San Francisco Bay area. Her next novel is due out in 2011.
From the book The Little Giant of Aberdeen County. Copyright © 2009 by Tiffany Baker. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, N.Y. All rights reserved.