I do not remember when Myra Sayla came to town, though she must have been in our class at school for two or three years. I start remembering her in the last year, when her little brother Jimmy Sayla was in Grade One. Jimmy Sayla was not used to going to the bathroom by himself and he would have to come to the Grade Six door and ask for Myra and she would take him downstairs. Quite often he would not get to Myra in time and there would be a big dark stain on his little button-on cotton pants. Then Myra had to come and ask the teacher: “Please may I take my brother home, he has wet himself?”
That was what she said the first time and everybody in the front seats heard her—though Myra’s voice was the lightest singsong—and there was a muted giggling which alerted the rest of the class. Our teacher, a cold gentle girl who wore glasses with thin gold rims and in the stiff solicitude of certain poses resembled a giraffe, wrote some-thing on a piece of paper and showed it to Myra. And Myra recited uncertainly: “My brother has had an accident, please, teacher.”
Everybody knew of Jimmy Sayla’s shame and at recess (if he was not being kept in, as he often was, for doing something he shouldn’t in school) he did not dare go out on the school grounds, where the other little boys, and some bigger ones, were waiting to chase him and corner him against the back fence and thrash him with tree branches. He had to stay with Myra. But at our school there were two sides, the Boys’ Side and the Girls’ Side, and it was believed that if you so much as stepped on the side that was not your own you might easily get the strap. Jimmy could not go out on the Girls’ Side and Myra could not go out on the Boys’ Side, and no one was allowed to stay in the school unless it was raining or snowing. So Myra and Jimmy spent every recess standing in the little back porch between the two sides. Perhaps they watched the baseball games, the tag and skipping and building of leaf houses in the fall and snow forts in the winter; perhaps they did not watch at all. Whenever you happened to look at them their heads were slightly bent, their narrow bodies hunched in, quite still. They had long smooth oval faces, melancholy and discreet— dark, oily, shining hair. The little boy’s was long, clipped at home, and Myra’s was worn in heavy braids coiled on top of her head so that she looked, from a distance, as if she was wearing a turban too big for her. Over their dark eyes the lids were never fully raised; they had a weary look. But it was more than that. They were like children in a medieval painting, they were like small figures carved of wood, for worship or magic, with faces smooth and aged, and meekly, cryptically uncommunicative.
Most of the teachers at our school had been teaching for a long time and at recess they would disappear into the teachers’ room and not bother US. But our own teacher, the young woman of the fragile gold-rimmed glasses, was apt to watch US from a window and sometimes come out, looking brisk and uncomfortable, to stop a fight among the little girls or start a running game among the big ones, who had been huddled together playing Truth or Secrets. One day she came out and called, “Girls in Grade Six, I want to talk to you!” She smiled persuasively, earnestly, and with dreadful unease, showing fine gold rims around her teeth. She said, “There is a girl in Grade Six called Myra Sayla. She is in your grade, isn’t she?”
We mumbled. But there was a coo from Gladys Healey.
“Yes, Miss Darling!”
“Well, why is she never playing with the rest of you? Every day I see her standing in the back porch, never playing. Do you think she looks very happy standing back there? Do you think you would be very happy, if you were left back there?”
Nobody answered; we faced Miss Darling, all respectful, self-possessed, and bored with the unreality of her
question. Then Gladys said, “Myra can’t come out with us, Miss Darling. Myra has to look after her little brother!”
“Oh,” said Miss Darling dubiously. “Well you ought to try to be nicer to her anyway. Don’t you think so? Don’t you? You will try to be nicer, won’t you? I know you will.” Poor Miss Darling! Her campaigns were soon confused, her persuasions turned to bleating and uncertain pleas.
When she had gone Gladys Healey said softly, “You will try to be nicer, won’t you? I know you will!” and then drawing her lip back over her big teeth she yelled exuberantly, “I don’t care if it rains or freezes.” She went through the whole verse and ended it with a spectacular twirl of her Royal Stuart tartan skirt. Mr. Healey ran a Dry Goods and Ladies’ Wear, and his daughter’s leadership in our class was partly due to her flashing plaid skirts and organdy blouses and velvet jackets with brass buttons, but also to her early-maturing bust and the fine brutal force of her personality. Now we all began to imitate Miss Darling.
We had not paid much attention to Myra before this. But now a game was developed; it started with saying, “Let’s be nice to Myra!” Then we would walk up to her in formal groups of three or four and at a signal, say together, “Hel-lo Myra, Hello Afy-ra!” and follow up with something like, “What do you wash your hair in, Myra, it’s so nice and shiny, My-ra.” “Oh she washes it in codliver oil, don’t you, Myra, she washes it in cod-liver oil, can’t you smell it?”
And to tell the truth there was a smell about Myra, but it was a rotten-sweetish smell as of bad fruit. That was what the Saylas did, kept a little fruit store. Her father sat all day on a stool by the window, with his shirt open over his swelling stomach and tufts of black hair showing around his belly button; he chewed garlic. But if you went into the store it was Mrs. Sayla who came to wait on you, appearing silently between the limp print curtains hung across the back of the store. Her hair was crimped in black waves and she smiled with her full lips held together, stretched as far as they would go; she told you the price in a little rapping voice, daring you to challenge her and, when you did not, handed you the bag of fruit with open mockery in her eyes.
One morning in the winter I was walking up the school hill very early; a neighbor had given me a ride into town. I lived about half a mile out of town, on a farm, and I should not have been going to the town school at all, but to a country school nearby where there were half a dozen pupils and a teacher a little demented since her change of life. But my mother, who was an ambitious woman, had prevailed on the town trustees to accept me and my father to pay the extra tuition, and I went to school in town. I was the only one in the class who carried a lunch pail and ate peanut butter sandwiches in the high, bare, mustard-colored cloakroom, the only one who had to wear rubber boots in the spring, when the roads were heavy with mud. I felt a little danger, on account of this; but I could not tell exactly what it was.
I saw Myra and Jimmy ahead of me on the hill; they always went to school very early—sometimes so early that they had to stand outside waiting for the janitor to open the door. They were walking slowly, and now and then Myra half turned around. I had often loitered in that way, wanting to walk with some important girl who was behind me, and not quite daring to stop and wait. Now it occurred to me that Myra might be doing this with me. I did not know what to do. I could not afford to be seen walking with her, and I did not even want to—but, on the other hand, the flattery of those humble, hopeful turnings was not lost on me. A role was shaping for me that I could not resist playing. I felt a great pleasurable rush of self-conscious benevolence; before I thought what I was doing I called, “Myra! Hey, Myra, wait up, I got some Cracker Jack!” and I quickened my pace as she stopped.
Myra waited, but she did not look at me; she waited in the withdrawn and rigid attitude with which she always met us. Perhaps she thought I was playing a trick on her, perhaps she expected me to run past and throw an empty Cracker Jack box in her face. And I opened the box and held it out to her. She took a little. Jimmy ducked behind her coat and would not take any when I offered the box to him.
“He’s shy,” I said reassuringly. “A lot of little kids are shy like that. He’ll probably grow out of it.”
“Yes,” said Myra.
“I have a brother four,” I said. “He’s awfully shy.” He wasn’t. “Have some more Cracker Jack,” I said. “I used to eat Cracker Jack all the time but I don’t any more. I think it’s bad for your complexion.”
There was a silence.
“Do you like Art?” said Myra faintly.
“No. I like Social Studies and Spelling and Health.”
“I like Art and Arithmetic.” Myra could add and multiply in her head faster than anyone else in the class.
“I wish I was as good as you. In Arithmetic,” I said, and felt magnanimous.
“But I am no good at Spelling,” said Myra. “I make the most mistakes, I’ll fail maybe.” She did not sound unhappy about this, but pleased to have such a thing to say. She kept her head turned away from me, staring at the dirty snowbanks along Victoria Street, and as she talked she made a sound as if she was wetting her lips with her tongue.
“You won’t fail,” I said. “You are too good in Arithmetic. What are you going to be when you grow up?”
She looked bewildered. “I will help my mother,” she said. “And work in the store.”
“Well I am going to be an airplane hostess,” I said. “But don’t mention it to anybody. I haven’t told many people.”
“No, I won’t” said Myra. “Do you read Steve Canyon in the paper?”
“Yes.” It was queer to think that Myra, too, read the comics, or that she did anything at all, apart from her role at the school. “Do you read Rip Kirby?”
“Do you read Orphan Annie?”
“Do you read Betsy and the Boys?”
“You haven’t had hardly any Cracker Jack,” I said. “Have some. Take a whole handful.”
Myra looked into the box. “There’s a prize in there,” she said. She pulled it out. It was a brooch, a little tin butterfly, painted gold with bits of colored glass stuck onto it to look like jewels. She held it in her brown hand, smiling slightly.
I said, “Do you like that?”
Myra said, “I like them blue stones. Blue stones are sapphires.”
“I know. My birthstone is sapphire. What is your birth-stone?”
“I don’t know.”
“When is your birthday?”
“Then yours is ruby.”
“I like sapphire better,” said Myra. “I like yours.” She handed me the brooch.
“You keep it,” I said. “Finders keepers.”
Myra kept holding it out, as if she did not know what I meant. “Finders keepers,” I said.
“It was your Cracker Jack,” said Myra, scared and solemn. “You bought it.”
“Well you found it.”
“No—” said Myra.
“Go on!” I said. “Here, I’ll give it to you.” I took the brooch from her and pushed it back into her hand.
We were both surprised. We looked at each other; I flushed but Myra did not. I realized the pledge as our fingers touched; I was panicky, but all right. I thought, I can come early and walk with her other mornings. I can go and talk to her at recess. Why not? WTry not?
Myra put the brooch in her pocket. She said, “I can wear it on my good dress. My good dress is blue.”
I knew it would be. Myra wore out her good dresses at school. Even in midwinter among the plaid wool skirts and serge tunics, she glimmered sadly in sky-blue taffeta, in dusty turquoise crepe, a grown woman’s dress made over, weighted by a big bow at the vee of the neck and folding empty over Myra’s narrow chest.
And I was glad she had not put it on. If someone asked her where she got it, and she told them, what would I say?
It was the day after this, or the week after, that Myra did not come to school. Often she was kept at home to help. But this time she did not come back. For a week, then two weeks, her desk was empty. Then we had a moving day at school, and Myra’s books were taken out of her desk and put on a shelf in the closet. Miss Darling said, “We’ll find a seat when she comes back.” And she stopped calling Myra’s name when she took attendance.
Jimmy Sayla did not come to school either, having no one to take him to the bathroom.
In the fourth week or the fifth, that Myra had been away, Gladys Healey came to school and said, “Do you know what—Myra Sayla is sick in the hospital.”
It was true. Gladys Healey had an aunt who was a nurse. Gladys put up her hand in the middle of Spelling and told Miss Darling. “I thought you might like to know,” she said. “Oh yes,” said Miss Darling. “I do know.”
“What has she got?” we said to Gladys.
And Gladys said, “Akemia, or something. And she has blood transfusions.” She said to Miss Darling, “My aunt is a nurse.”
So Miss Darling had the whole class write Myra a letter, in which everybody said, “Dear Myra, We are all writing you a letter. We hope you will soon be better and be back to school, Yours truly . ..” And Miss Darling said, “I’ve thought of something. Who would like to go up to the hospital and visit Myra on the twentieth of March, for a birthday party?”
I said, “Her birthday’s in July.”
“I know,” said Miss Darling. “It’s the twentieth of July. So this year she could have it on the twentieth of March, because she’s sick.”
“But her birthday is in July.”
“Because she’s sick,” said Miss Darling, with a warning shrillness. “The cook at the hospital would make a cake and you could all give a little present, twenty-five cents or so. It would have to be between two and four, because that’s visiting hours. And we couldn’t all go, it’d be too many. So who wants to go and who wants to stay here and do supplementary reading?”
We all put up our hands. Miss Darling got out the spelling records and picked out the first fifteen, twelve girls and three boys. Then the three boys did not want to go so she picked out the next three girls. And I do not know when it was, but I think it was probably at this moment that the birthday party of Myra Sayla became fashionable.
Perhaps it was because Gladys Healey had an aunt who was a nurse, perhaps it was the excitement of sickness and hospitals, or simply the fact that Myra was so entirely, impressively set free of all the rules and conditions of our lives. We began to talk of her as if she were something we owned, and her party became a cause; with womanly heaviness we discussed it at recess, and decided that twenty- five cents was too low.
We all went up to the hospital on a sunny afternoon when the snow was melting, carrying our presents, and a nurse led us upstairs, single file, and down a hall past halfclosed doors and dim conversations. She and Miss Darling kept saying, “Sh-sh,” but we were going on tiptoe anyway; our hospital demeanor was perfect.
At this small country hospital there was no children’s ward, and Myra was not really a child; they had put her in with two gray old women. A nurse was putting screens around them as we came in.
Myra was sitting up in bed in a bulky stiff hospital gown. Her hair was down, the long braids falling over her shoulders and down the coverlet. But her face was the same, always the same.
She had been told something about the party, Miss Darling said, so the surprise would not upset her; but it seemed she had not believed, or had not understood what it was. She watched US as she used to watch in the school grounds when we played.
“Well, here we are!” said Miss Darling. “Here we are!”
And we said, “Happy birthday, Myra! Hello, Myra, happy birthday!” Myra said, “My birthday is in July.” Her voice was lighter than ever, drifting, expressionless.
“Never mind when it is, really,” said Miss Darling. “Pretend it’s now! How old are you, Myra?”
“Eleven,” Myra said. “In July.”
Then we all took off our coats and emerged in our party dresses, and laid our presents, in their pale flowery wrappings, on Myra’s bed. Some of our mothers had made immense, complicated bows of fine satin ribbon, some of them had even taped on little bouquets of imitation roses and lilies of the valley. “Here Myra,” we said, “here Myra, happy birthday.” Myra did not look at US, but at the ribbons, pink and blue and speckled with silver, and the miniature bouquets; they pleased her, as the butterfly had done. An innocent look came into her face, a partial, private smile.
“Open them, Myra,” said Miss Darling. “They’re for you!”
Myra gathered the presents around her, fingering them, with this smile, and a cautious realization, an unexpected pride. She said, “Saturday I’m going to London to St. Joseph’s Hospital.”
“That’s where my mother was at,” somebody said. “We went and saw her. They’ve got all nuns there.”
“My father’s sister is a nun,” said Myra calmly.
She began to unwrap the presents, with an air that not even Gladys could have bettered, folding the tissue paper and the ribbons, and drawing out books and puzzles and
cutouts as if they were all prizes she had won. Miss Darling said that maybe she should say thank you and the person’s name with every gift she opened) to make sure she knew whom it was from, and so Myra said, “Thank you, Mary Louise, thank you, Carol,” and when she came to mine she said, “Thank you, Helen.” Everyone explained their presents to her and there was talking and excitement and a little gaiety, which Myra presided over, though she was not gay. A cake was brought in with Happy Birthday Myra written on it) pink on white, and eleven candles. Miss Darling lit the candles and we all sang Happy Birthday to You, and cried, “Make a wish, Myra, make a wish—” and Myra blew them out. Then we all had cake and strawberry ice cream.
At four o’clock a buzzer sounded and the nurse took out what was left of the cake, and the dirty dishes, and we put on our coats to go home. Everybody said, “Goodbye, Myra,” and Myra sat in the bed watching US go, her back straight, not supported by any pillow, her hands resting on the gifts. But at the door I heard her call; she called, “Helen!” Only a couple of the others heard; Miss Darling did not hear, she had gone out ahead. I went back to the bed.
Myra said: “I got too many things. You take something.”
“What?” I said. “It’s for your birthday. You always get a lot at a birthday.”
“Well you take something,” Myra said. She picked up
a leatherette case with a mirror in it, a comb and a nail file and a natural lipstick and a small handkerchief edged with gold thread. I had noticed it before. “You take that,” she said.
“Don’t you want it?”
“You take it.” She put it into my hand. Our fingers touched again.
“When I come back from London,” Myra said, “you can come and play at my place after school.”
“Okay,” I said. Outside the hospital window there was a clear carrying sound of somebody playing in the street, maybe chasing with the last snowballs of the year. This sound made Myra, her triumph and her bounty, and most of all her future in which she had found this place for me, turn shadowy, turn dark. All the presents on the bed, the folded paper and ribbons, those guilt-tinged offerings, had passed into this shadow, they were no longer innocent objects to be touched, exchanged, accepted without danger. I didn’t want to take the case now but I could not think how to get out of it, what lie to tell. I’ll give it away, I thought, I won’t ever play with it. I would let my little brother pull it apart.
The nurse came back, carrying a glass of chocolate milk.
“What’s the matter, didn’t you hear the buzzer?”
So I was released, set free by the barriers which now closed about Myra, her unknown, exalted, ether-smelling hospital world, and by the treachery of my own heart. “Well thank you,” I said. “Thank you for the thing. Goodbye.”
Did Myra ever say goodbye? Not likely. She sat in her high bed, her delicate brown neck rising out of a hospital gown too big for her, her brown carved face immune to treachery, her offering perhaps already forgotten, prepared to be set apart for legendary uses, as she was even in the back porch at school.
1. Is the spirit in which Helen gives Myra the butterfly pin different from the spirit in which the girls give the birthday gifts?
2. Why does Myra want to give Helen a gift? Why is Helen reluctant to accept it?
3. Why will Myra become a legend to the girls at school?