Jimmy threw a handful of dust at the girl and shouted again. “Tanya is skinny skinny skinny.”
Although the epithet was appropriate, Tanya was thin as a rail, it was the kind of insult a black pot might hurl at a kettle. At eleven years Jimmy showed his age: he was scrawny, like a sickly rake, except at the point where his belly distended through his ragged t-shirt; his lips were thin and his eyes were dull; his skin was puce-coloured and filthy. As with far too many boys in Fairbanks, it was difficult to tell where dirt ended and disease began.
Tanya stared down at Jimmy but didn’t reply to his taunts. His words didn’t hurt as much today as they did on other days. Today she felt distanced from him, as if she was from another world that he couldn’t touch.
Two blocks from Tanya’s home Jimmy made a left so that he could take a short cut to his home in the Projects. Tanya turned right, and began walking toward the other side of the railway tracks. Her mother was waiting for her on the stoop of the family’s three story brick townhouse. Normally, that was a bad sign because it meant Mum wanted to talk about something, like grades. This time Tanya wasn’t so sure. Her mother didn’t even notice her approach: she sat crouched forward with her head between her hands, looking down at her feet. In her left hand she held a rumpled, blue envelope.
“Mum.” Tanya asked tentatively when she reached the bottom step. Her mother hadn’t even noticed her arrival.
Tanya’s mother looked up and wearily said, “Hi Pumpkin.” As an afterthought she added, “How was school?”
“Were you on time?”
“Did any of the Hootch boys bother you?”
Mum sighed, “What did he do?”
Mum let it drop. At least she wasn’t crying anymore. Tanya said, “Come inside, Mum. I’ll help you make dinner.”
Dad arrived two hours later, at 6:00 pm, which was early. Mum greeted him at the door. She hugged him until he gently pushed her away. He said, “That’s enough Rhonda.” He wasn’t annoyed by Mum’s excessive affection, just tired.
Dad walked into the kitchen. He silently stared at the bare table – a small plate of potatoes, and some salmon. He asked, “What’s for dinner?”
Tanya braced herself. Dad could see what was for dinner. But he wasn’t asking a question, he was saying how little there was. He always did that, because where he came from in California there was lots. In Fairbanks there was never enough.
Mum was in no mood to fight. “You’ve got some mail.” She handed Dad the blue envelope she’d been crying over earlier. Dad looked at the envelope. He noticed it was opened but said nothing. He handed the letter back to Mum and said, “Read it to me.”
Mum whispered, “Tanya’s here.”
Dad said, “Read it anyway”. He didn’t lower his voice. Mum read,To: GM visa holderUnder the terms of Article XIII of the Genetic Purity Act, you are to report to any Republic of Alaska military recruiting centre within two weeks. Failure to do so will result in an immediate felony conviction.
A list of recruiting centres …
Mum stopped reading.
“What’s a GM visa, Dad?” Tanya asked.
“Your father’s genes have been modified to make them better” Mum replied.
“When? Why wasn’t I told?”, Tanya exclaimed.
“The changes happened hundreds of years ago, pumpkin” Mum replied. “Your father inherited the improvements from his Mum and Dad.”
“And you inherited them from me”, Dad added gruffly.
Mum raised her voice so that she could speak over Dad, “Your genes don’t matter right now, Tanya. What matters is that your father has to join the army for a few years.”
“Do we have to move?” Tanya asked.
Dad answered, “Yes. I’ll be training at Fort Palin, near Inuvik. That’s where they send all the conscripts.”
“What about the war?” Tanya asked her father. “Do you think you’ll have to fight in the war?”
Mum spoke with an outdoor voice, “There’s no war! That’s just a border dispute over Lake Athabasca. I’m sure it’ll be over by the time your father’s training is done.”
Dad picked up his food and went to the living room. That’s what he did when he was angry but too tired to fight. Tanya went with him. Mum stayed in the kitchen. She hardly ate.
When Dad finished his dinner he went to the kitchen to talk to Mum. He wasn’t angry anymore. Tanya pretended to sleep by the stove, but was really listening to her parents.
Dad said, “Rhonda. I’m going to go back to Long Beach. I’d like you and Tanya to come with me.”
Dad looked at Mum. She looked away. She said, “Cody, draft dodging is too dangerous. If you get caught you’ll be shot or enslaved. And think of Tanya.”
Dad looked into the living room.
Mum said, “Do you think two years in the army is that bad? I bet the pay is the same as you get now.” Mum was speaking quietly. Tanya rolled over so that she could hear better.
Dad replied, “Sure. Soldier’s make more than labourers. If they live.”
Mum started to cry. §
Just before dawn Tanya awoke and quietly descended from her room on the third floor to the kitchen to make breakfast. She found Mum sitting on the couch in the living room. Mum’s eyes were bright red but she was no longer crying. Tanya hesitated before joining her. She didn’t know what she could say: she disliked it when Mum asked nosy questions, so hesitated to do so herself.
Mum spoke first, “Did you do your homework?”
“No. I couldn’t think last night. Anyway, I have until Monday.”
“What’s your assignment?”
“Its like show and tell. I have to pretend I’m a visitor from an historical time and place.”
“Do you have any ideas?”
Tanya shrugged, “Miss Langan said I should talk about the Arctic War.”
“Don’t talk about war, sweetheart. Do something cultural instead. Why don’t you talk about the Movies?”
Tanya liked that idea a lot more than talking about some ancient battle. “That sounds great, Mum, but I need a theme.”
“What do movies make you think of pumpkin?”
Tanya thought about the fights between Mum and Dad over how there was never enough food.
“Lots”, she said.
“What do you mean?”
“They had lots of everything in Movie Times. I’m want to talk about that.”
Mum leaned over and gently clasped Tanya’s hands, “How about we study tomorrow by seeing a movie?”
For the first time in weeks both Rhonda and her daughter smiled. §
The next morning Rhonda and Tanya got up early for the walk downtown to the Central Reference Library. The road had just been cleaned, so they walked on it instead of the rickety wooden sidewalks. They had to be careful to avoid getting splashed by delivery wagons rushing to the Saturday market.
Tanya, though quiet, was engaged. Every once in a while she would make a comment about something, but otherwise was content to look everywhere and say nothing.
They arrived at the library on time for the noon matinee. Today’s movie was “Harry Potter and the Temple of the Phoenix”. The library always played this one because it had lots of copies, so it didn’t matter so much if one wore out.
Tanya was bursting with excitement. Despite herself Rhonda was as well. It had been years since she had seen a movie, and she had never once seen a Harry Potter.
The theatre was part of a Victorian Revival building that had been annexed to the Central Reference Library a generation earlier. Its entrance was guarded by a pair of marble dragons, which sat on either side of a grand staircase. Its atrium was illuminated by a giant electric light that hung from a domed ceiling. The theatre itself had an orchestra pit and two terraces. The staircase walls were painted with giant frescoes of important moments in the military history of the Republic: the battle of Bear Lake, the lifting of the Siege of Barrow, and the sack of Burnaby. The second balcony was closed entirely while artists worked on the latest addition to the frescoes, a memorial to the Hay River Massacre. It was a painting of the young Joan Smith dying on the bow of the Mackenzie Dawn. That was the event that started the current war.
The movie began.
For both Tanya and her mother the next hour was a wonderful blur.
When the torches were lit for the intermission, Tanya became disoriented. The Dementors, Hogwarts, the magic – it was all so vivid. The library auditorium seemed flat, dull and unreal. §
Tanya went into the lobby to buy a soda for her mother, and some popcorn for herself. Mum eye’s followed her as she went.
The concession stand was decorated with mirrors. All of the walls and pillars had mirrors as well, which made the lobby look huge because every where you looked you saw infinity. Tanya was teased so much about her body she never looked at herself in the mirror. Why would she want to see how ugly she was? She tried not to look at herself now, but it was difficult.
While Tanya stood in line, staring at her feet, a child’s voice said, “Miss. Miss.” A little girl, no more than seven, tugged at the hem of her skirt. Tanya looked up. The tugging was being done by a beautiful Yupik girl – she was well fed and had ruddy red skin. Her black hair was tied into two pigs tails that stuck up like antennas. The child asked Tanya, “Miss, are you Hermione?”
Tanya looked from the girl to millions of reflections of the Hermione.
The Yupik child burst out, “You’re beautiful!” The little girl was so embarrassed by her words that she rolled away, but the words she had just spoken did not leave with her. Tanya wouldn’t let them: she had always wanted to be beautiful.
A woman wearing a puffy coat made of muskrat fur rushed over to Tanya. She bent down on one knee and raised Tanya’s chin with her right hand, and said, “That Eskimo child is right. You look just like Emma Watson. Are you one? I haven’t seen any since the pogroms.” Tanya edged away, but there was nowhere to hide in a room full of mirrors. The woman continued, “Never mind. Of course you are. Why don’t you read this. There’s an address on the back if you want to talk.” The woman handed Tanya a pamphlet. There was a black and white picture of the magician Hermione on the cover. It had the title, “The Goddesses of Movie Times.”
Tanya took the pamphlet from the woman, and rushed back to her seat. Mum didn’t ask why Tanya didn’t return with a drink.
In the last few moments before the movie continued Tanya began read a story from her pamphlet with the title “Were wizards real?”
Mum noticed but said nothing. §
The moment the movie ended Rhonda threw a hat and scarf over her daughter, hustled them both out of the library and onto the street. Despite the cost, they took a carriage home.
For the first few minutes of their journey they were both silent. Tanya was thinking about how Hogwarts was her true home, and wondered if there was a portal to it in Fairbanks. She once excitedly made the driver stop the carriage when she mistook a huge, unkempt trapper for Hagrid.
Rhonda brooded, uncertain how to proceed.
Tanya broke the silence, “Mum, am I Hermione?”
“Dear heart, someone hundreds of years ago altered your genes so that you look like Hermione. But no, you’re not her. Hermione is not real. She’s just a character in a story.”
“But what about Emma Watson? She was real. Am I her? Or a clone of her? Or something else?”
“Pumpkin, movie stars are never real. They’re myths we create about famous actors.”
“Why would someone want to look like Hermione?”
“Because she was beautiful.”
Tanya tried to suppress a smile; she did not succeed, “But I’m skinny.”
“In Movie Times people thought it was beautiful to be slender. They considered it a sign of health and self-discipline.”
“What do you mean, self-discipline?”
“Back then there was so much of everything that some people had too much. They would eat and eat until they grew so fat they were ugly.”
Tanya remembered how Dad looked at his empty plate.
Too much and not enough. §
When they got home Tanya and her mother silently prepared and ate a simple meal. Dad wasn’t there: he worked on Saturdays.
When they were almost done cleaning up dinner Tanya broke the silence. “Mum, I’ve been thinking about my presentation for school. Can I practice on you?”
Mum said, “Of course, dear.”
They put away their towels, drained the sink and retired to the living room.
Mum sat down in the big chair Dad always used. Tanya gathered her thoughts while she composed herself in front of the wood stove. She had learned from the Harry Potter movie that she wasn’t an ugly duckling. If this was California in Movie Times everyone would think that she was as beautiful as a star. She had to let her classmates know this! But how?
Tanya began, “In Movie Times make-believe was real, and because we make-believe wonderful things everything was better back then.”
Mum squirmed in her chair.
Tanya continued, “They had lots of everything in Movie Times. Not just clothes and wagons, but even lots of fresh water. They had machines that could create water out of air.” She took a big inhalation. “And of course they had lots of Movie Stars.”
Tanya stopped speaking. That was as all she had.
Mum carefully asked, “Tanya, what did you say about make-believe?” The simple question confused Tanya. Tanya had gone into a trance when she recited her speech. She didn’t remember any of it, what she had said, what Mum’s reactions were, nothing. She said, “Let me practice some more, and do some research. We can do it again tomorrow. OK?”
Tanya went to bed, where she dreamed of eating all the smoked fish she wanted, and having lemonade and sugar cookies for desert.
Mum was hungry. She had scrimped on dinner because the cost of the carriage home had been steep. She opened the icebox. All they had was a small piece of dried salmon, some old potatoes, stale bread and sour butter. She left it all for Dad. §
On Monday morning Tanya was excited about how she was going to tell her story. She knew that if she could make her classmates understand that she wasn’t just different she was special, like a princess from a far away land, they’d be her friends.
Rhonda looked at her child. Tanya had never been this enthusiastic about going to school. Had she ever been this enthusiastic about anything? Tanya’s excitement took the edge off her mother’s nerves, but it was impossible not to worry. They had rehearsed the presentation a dozen times last night, and each time Tanya’s words were different.
Although she was shunned by her family, Rhonda Anderson was still treated as a highly ranked noble by the teachers at her daughter’s school. When she arrived with her daughter in a carriage, which they had taken to ensure that Tanya was unmuddied, a great fuss was made by the principal. Rhonda was invited to watch all of the presentations. Although she was anxious about her presence upsetting her daughter, she agreed to stay.
The school had three classrooms for three different age groups. All the children had all gathered in the biggest classroom, which was the one normally used by the youngest children. Tanya’s teacher was a middle-aged Asian refugee who had migrated to Alaska across the pole. Her English was fluent, but accented, and precisely spoken. This gave her an appearance of harshness not warranted by her otherwise stoic and gentle manner. She was dressed in a blue uniform, white top and blue tie: an adult version of what the children wore. The school bell rang; the children settled down.
The teacher asked, “Who would like to go first?”
Tanya’s arm shot up. Her teacher was surprised. Tanya was a reticent child who never volunteered for anything. She said, “Very good, Tanya. You can go first. What is your historical period?”
“What is your theme?”
“I expect you to explain what you mean by that.”
Tanya nodded vigorously but wondered why you’d need to explain the idea of lots to anyone.
Tanya took her place at the front of the classroom, stood up straight and smoothed her skirt with her hands. The teacher said, “Begin”.
Tanya began. “My speech is about my pretend visit to Los Angeles, California in Movie Times.”
Tanya mustered all of her effort to look at her classmates. She wouldn’t go blank the way she did when practicing with Mum. They were all looking at her. Tanya’s heart was racing. She took a deep breath to calm herself down. She began, “In Movie Times there was lots of everything. There was lots of lemons and sugar, and crayons came in over one hundred colours.”
Tanya nervously inhaled. She exhaled, “The streets were full of metal wagons with tires made of air. Every family had one, some had two or three, so that children could drive too. At first I was scared to drive, then one day I drove from Hollywood to Santa Monica on a highway. It was fun.”
Tanya paused to look at her classmates. She had their complete attention. She smiled as she spoke her next words, “Even school was fun in Movie Times. There were no tests because everyone owned a box that contained all knowledge. If you wanted to know something, all you had to do was ask your box. It was easier if you could type, but you didn’t have to, most of the time the knowledge box could understand your spoken words.”
Tanya’s audience had disappeared. She was entirely in her head again. This time, she noticed. Pay attention, Tanya, she thought. This can change your life.
Tanya forced her perceptions to come back into the room. In a bold voice she said, “One of the best things about back then was all the Movie Stars. There was Halley who was the goddess of beauty. She was thin and had big breasts, so everyone liked her.”
Tanya looked at her classmates, just to know she could. She continued, “Not all of these goddesses were good. Some were terrible. The goddesses Paris and Lindsey and Britney used to kill their boyfriends, after they kissed them.”
“My Mum thinks they still do.” That was Jimmy Hootch. For once he wasn’t teasing. He was just saying. Tanya felt encouraged. She said, “I think so too”. Mum cringed.
Tanya’s presentation reached its climax, “On my trip to Hollywood I met my favorite movie star, Emma. That’s her regular name. Her Greek name is Hermione. I liked her because …” Tanya stumbled on the words because Emma was just like me. Tanya couldn’t say that. Instead she said, “Hermione was one of the perfume goddesses.”
“What did she look like?” The question was asked by Peter, one of the older Hootch boys. Today he had a large bruise around his left eye. Just like the one his brother Jimmy had last week.
“Let me tell you” Tanya said proudly. She opened up the pamphlet she had been given at the Central Reference Library, and began to read in a loud, steady voice, “The goddess Emma was pretty and thin and had small breasts, a pert butt and a button nose.”
“Tanya, did you see the Harry Potter movie on Saturday? You look like the magician Hermione.” The question was asked by one of the older boys who Tanya didn’t know.
“Yeah, you do.” Everyone who had seen any of the Harry Potters agreed.
Even though Tanya was afraid of expressing her emotions, a smile spread over her face. She had done it! Now they all knew. She wasn’t an ugly duckling because she was skinny. She was as beautiful as a movie star.
“Why don’t you see if anyone has questions?”, the teacher prompted.
“I have a question. I do.”
“Tanya, what was the best part of Movie Times?”
Calvin was the oldest of the Hootch boys. He was quieter than his other brothers, as if age had made him too tired to be angry. He got more black eyes than the rest of his brothers combined, even though he never fought.
Tanya replied, “I think that the best thing about back then was that no one ever starved, because if you got hungry and had no food the Government gave you stamps that you could eat.”
Calvin’s eyes went wide. Tanya looked at the rest of her classmates. All of their eyes were wide too: their next meals were never guaranteed. They had all gone hungry.
“Are there any more questions?” the teacher asked.
There were no more questions. The children had learned all about lots.