The Brave Dress
For almost forty years, it had lain, encased in an old-style zippered plastic bag, packed with chips of cedar, a lace-edged sachet of lavender, and a few moth balls that gave out a pungent odor as Bou drew it out. Or rather, as it erupted out of its bag in a froth of pink, as if it had lain in wait all those decades for just this moment. The ballerina skirt of satin and lace expanded until it all but filled the width of the caravan. The bodice, its curves outlined with seed pearls and rhinestones, stood proud atop the foam like the mast of a ship tossed by pink waves. Bou had fallen in love with it, the first moment sh’he saw it in the Salvation Army window of their small Texas town. It spoke of romance, of a waltz under a full moon, of perfume wafting and a dark-eyed stranger’s intimate glance across a crowded room. Bou loved it now, as sh’he fingered an old tear mended with tiny stitches, Grandma Patty’s handiwork, and traced the delicate intricacies of the lace. The dress was so beautiful—all that was feminine and undaunted.
“Sh’he’ll love it,” Bou assured hirself. “Who wouldn’t?” Sh’he held the dress up to hir own bosom, humming “I feel pretty” from an old musical, and attempted to waltz in the close confines of the caravan. It was more like swaying, and even then, the wide skirt set the hanging teacups to rattling.
The door rattled, too. Bou had drawn the bolt before sh’he brought the dress out. Sh’he’d wanted privacy to reacquaint hirself with this icon of hir past. Now sh’he heard loud knocking, and Lemma’s voice calling.
“Bou? Are you in there? Why is your door locked?”
“I have a surprise for you!” Bou sang out. “Be a dear and go get your bama. I want Riley to see this.”
Bou laid the dress on the narrow bed that took up the back third of the caravan and threw a bedspread over it. Sh’he unbolted the door, and a moment later hir partner Riley entered, stripping off hir white vet’s coverall and stuffing it into a hamper beside the door.
Riley took one of the two chairs that flanked a tiny table under the window, and Lemma stood leaning against the door, still dressed in hir range-rider’s jeans and boots and flannel shirt, smelling faintly of horse. Bou observed hir with a kind of wonder. Sh’he groped for Riley’s hand. How had they done it—raised that tiny scrap of a bawling infant Bou remembered so well, the soft little body sh’he’d so loved to cuddle, the sweet baby smell, the halting first steps, the little arms upraised, begging to be picked up. How had that tiny thing become this great, muscular creature, easy in hir lean body, on the very cusp of adulthood now? Lemma’s skin was bronzed by sun and wind, hir eyes confident. Hir shock of dark hair with its sun-bleached ends always stood up in ten directions as if the wind had just blown through it, and Bou longed to smooth it as sh’he had when Lemma was a small child. But sh’he was a child no longer. Tomorrow sh’he and hir entire cohort would celebrate their Rideup Ceremony, part rite of passage to adulthood, part graduation, part Pagan festival, part senior prom. Then, as the first frost turned the prairie white, sh’he and the cohort would travel back to the Motherhouse for their first Winter of Study, and Bou and Riley would be left, listening to the silence where once there had been clattering boots and laughing voices.
How would they fill that emptiness?
But that was for a later time. Now was a time for celebration.
“We are so proud of you!” Bou said. Riley squeezed hir hand. Bou knew that Riley knew that Bou was thinking of just how unproud hir own parents had been of hir at that age. Riley always knew. But even they would be proud of Lemma, with hir beautiful eyes and those competent, clever hands.
“You should be,” Lemma said with a smile.
Like so many things Lemma had said since sh’he first uttered hir halting baby phrases, that was utterly astonishing to Bou. How could sh’he be so self-assured, so confident in their love, in hir worth? Riley squeezed Bou’s hand again, and Bou knew sh’he was saying, “We made hir that way.”
“Hey, don’t go all teary-eyed on me,” Lemma said. “You’ve been great parents. So naturally, you raised a great kid. I love you both! I’m gonna miss you when I go to the Motherhouse, but I’ll be back every summer.”
“I have something to show you, and a story to tell,” Bou said.
Riley grinned. “Better take a seat,” sh’he said.
Lemma grinned back and settled into the other chair, feeling just a touch of impatience. There was so much to do to get ready for tomorrow, and sh’he and Ben, hir pardner, had planned a sunset ride. But this is part of it, sh’he told hirself. Growing up, saying goodbye. Goodbye to being a child. Goodbye to parents who were always there to catch hir every fall. Goodbye to me being their Little One, sh’he thought. It’s hard on them, this transition. I can give them this time.
Sh’he gazed at them fondly—such opposites! Riley was always calm, thoughtful, with hir patient, green eyes like forest pools, and those dark, graceful hands that looked so delicate but were strong enough to pull a stuck calf out of the birth canal. Riley was the chief vet of their band of Rories—the Religious Order of Regeneraters, responsible for the care of all the livestock and horses they used to regenerate the prairies. Lemma had always been so proud when Riley took hir on hir rounds, taught hir what to feel for in a horse’s leg, enlisting hir help with a difficult calving when Lemma’s hands were small enough to slip into a tight birth canal and fish for a hoof.
Bou was so different. Where Riley’s every movement spoke of purpose and determination, Bou was all generosity and excess, always womaning in hir lipstick and dyed-blond hair, flouncing in some flamboyant outfit, always the center of some huge drama. Lemma often had to remind hirself that Bou was also a world authority on prairie grasses. And it was Bou little Lemma had always run to with a skinned knee or a heart hurting from some slight, Bou who had always been there with open arms and comfort while Riley quietly brought out the bandages.
They were hir parents, and sh’he loved them. But sh’he was more than ready to be gone, free of their concerned attention, grown up and responsible for hirself.
“And now for a surprise!” Bou announced. Sh’he pulled back the bedspread, grabbed up the dress, and whirled around with a flourish. The caravan was filled to bursting with pink.
“This was my dress,” Bou said. “My prom dress. My brave dress.”
It was all Lemma could do to keep hir expression neutral as pink froth whirled by hir face in the tight space of the caravan. The dress was the tackiest thing sh’he had ever seen. The Rories were sheepherders as well as cowfolk, breeders of fine wool-bearers. They grew up spinning and weaving and judging textiles, and they had nothing but contempt for synthetic satin and machine-made lace. But Bou loves it, Lemma told hirself. It means something to hir. Try to be polite.
“I saw this dress in our local thrift store the week before Senior Prom,” Bou said. “The moment I saw it, I knew I had to have it. It cost twenty dollars, which wasn’t much for a ball gown but was a lot to me at the time. Still, I had some money I’d been saving for the prom, and I bought it. I had to hide it—if my dad had found it he would have killed me! He was very old-fashioned, very ‘men are manly men’ and all, and you know I was born with a male body.”
“I know,” Lemma said patiently. Sh’he had heard these stories many times, and sh’he found hir impatience growing.
“I wasn’t really thinking of wearing it to the prom at first,” Bou went on. “I think I really bought it not so much to wear but to keep someone else from buying it. I just wanted to have it and own it and dream of wearing it. But then I started to think…what if that dream could come true?
“I think I convinced myself that nobody would know it was me. A beautiful stranger would appear, in the most beautiful dress, and dance the night away. Everyone would lose their hearts to her…and then, come midnight, she’d be gone.
“My Dad had offered to rent me a tux for the prom…”
“What’s a tux?” Lemma interrupted.
“A tuxedo. A very formal costume, for men. But I knew Dad would be mad if he put out good money to rent a tux and then found out later I didn’t wear it. So I told him my best suit was plenty good enough. It was a standard, boring, male shit but you know men weren’t expected, or even allowed, to be too interesting in their personal appearance in those days.
“Anyway, I’d snuck the dress and my whole outfit out of the house in a gym bag a few days before, and given them to my friend Jen to hold for me. I didn’t have a date for the prom. I was going with my three best friends, all kind of misfits like me. We were the theater kids, you know, the ones who put on all the musicals. It gave us a chance to sing and dance and dress up in costumes—how I loved to sing!
Bou struck a pose and warbled, “Maria! I’ve just met a girl called Maria…”
Lemma glanced out the window. Sh’he had planned a sunset ride with Ben. How long would this go on?
“You’re losing the thread of your story,” Riley said quietly.
Bou stopped singing. “Well, you get the idea. Truth to tell, I wasn’t great as a singer. Probably best I went into botany. Although I believe my friend Randy did have a career as a minor actor…”
“And the prom?”
“Randy picked us all up in his father’s car. He stopped for gas on the way to the dance, and we all snuck into the bathroom to dress me up. Jen did my makeup, and Marilyn had a wig left over from when her older sister had radiation for breast cancer and her hair fell out. The dress was a bit loose on me in certain places, but we stuffed the bodice with toilet paper and I thought I looked dreamy.
“When we entered the prom, it was a sensation! I think for a few moments, at least, people really didn’t know who I was. Certainly the vice-principal, who was the main chaperone, didn’t seem to guess as we hurried past her. I’d been practicing beforehand, not just to look like a girl but to walk like a girl, act like a girl—the way I’d move my head or bat my eyes. And it all felt so…so right. So me! For the first time in my life, I felt like myself. The dress was me—and I had dared to wear it. I would never have to be not-me again!
“That’s what I was thinking as I danced with Randy, and then with some of the other guys. I was so graceful, so beautiful and free!
“But it didn’t last. I don’t know if somebody told—I think the truth is that I didn’t really look completely like a mysterious stranger. I looked like Robert Albert Jameson, in a dress.
“Wally Cranford was the captain of the football team—a big, blond hulk of a guy. About halfway through the evening, he sauntered over, flanked by four of five others of the team. They stood and stared down at me—and it wasn’t a stare of admiration.
“‘What the fuck do you think you’re up to, Jameson?’ he sneered at me.
“I stared back at him. I knew it wouldn’t do any good to cower, but I was terrified. I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t know what I could possibly say. My friends had melted away—except for Jen, but she stood a little ways back, and she looked as scared as I felt.
“’I said what the fuck are you up to, faggot!’ Wally said, and he shoved me, hard. I fell back. I still didn’t know what to say.
“’It’s just a joke,’ Jen said desperately. “A costume for our next play.”
“I so wish I’d stood up, then, and cried out ‘No! No, it’s not a joke, it’s who I truly am!’ But I was too scared to say anything at all.
“But the commotion had alerted Mrs. Pearson, the Vice-principal. She came over, and took a good look at me as the football team melted away.
“’Robert Jameson, what in heaven’s name do you think you are doing?’ she said. ‘You can’t be in here dressed like that! Get out of here! Go home and don’t come back until you’re dressed properly. In fact, don’t come back at all!’
‘I looked around. Randy, that coward, had melted away somewhere.
“I don’t have a way home,” I said in a small voice.
She just looked at me thoughtfully for a moment, and then she said, “You go wait outside.”
That walk across the gym floor was maybe the worst moment of my life. Worse, even, then what came after. The shock, the gauntlet of judging eyes, the sneers, the cries of ‘faggot’ and worse. I finally made it outside to the cool, clean air, and stood there for a moment looking up at the stars. ‘Why does it have to be so hard?’ I remember thinking. ‘Why does it have to be so hard to be me?’
Then the football team arrived…”
Why does sh’he have to keep telling me these stories, Lemma was thinking. What am I supposed to do with it? How many times do I have to admire how brave sh’he was? The truth is, the story made hir feel guilty. Sh’he had never been that brave. Maybe sh’he never would be. Sh’he had never had to be. Among the Rories, gender was more of a verb than a noun—something you did, not something you were. You had a body, and that determined certain things. Hard to physically bear a child without a womb. Hard to write your name in the snow with pee without a penis—although not entirely impossible. But it didn’t matter that much. It had little or nothing to do with who you are or any of the important things you could do. You could do whatever you wanted to do, or would good at, or needed to get done. You could wear jeans—almost everybody did because they were the only practical thing to wear if you were moving sheep and cattle around. Or you could wear a tacky pink dress if you wanted to—but who would want to?
“They beat me up,” Bou went on quietly. “I won’t describe it in detail. There were moments I wanted to die. I could have died. But deep inside me, I had this one thought that kept me alive. ‘I will survive this. I will survive, and I will make a world where a child of mine could wear this dress as a badge of pride.”
“Oh no,” Lemma was thinking. I don’t like where I think this is going…
“Mr. Alexy saved me. He was one of the parent chaperones—I guess Mrs. Pearson had asked him to drive me home. He chased off the team, shoveled me into his car and delivered me to my house. When my dad opened the door, Mr. Alexy just shook his head and said, ‘He’s your problem, Mr. Jameson,’ and left. I’ll never forget the look of absolute shock and horror on my Dad’s face. And I won’t go into what followed. Let’s just say whatever part of me the football team missed, my Dad found with his belt. And my mother just stood by and let him.
“It was my grandma Patty who bandaged me up. I was bruised and sore for a few days, and she brought me food and kept my Dad away from me. Then, on the morning of the third day, she gave me $500 and a bus ticket to San Francisco. It was probably a big chunk of her life savings, if not all of it.
“Get out of here,” she told me. “Get out of here if you want to survive. Go find your people. When you’re happy, write to me.”
Bou paused. Sh’he’s waiting for me to say something admiring, Lemma thought. Sh’he wants hir applause.
“You were very brave,” Lemma said.
Bou beamed. “You were the reason I survived. The hope of making a life, a world, where someone like you could be—so beautiful, so strong. I want…”
Oh no, Lemma thought. Sh’he saw Riley give a slight shake of hir head. But Bou plunged ahead.
“I want you to wear this dress.” Sh’he beamed at Lemma, as if conferring a great gift.
Oh great flying flocks of fart-birds! Lemma was thinking. Now what do I do?
“Fama,” sh’he said gently, “it’s an inspiring story. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I admire your courage. But I already have my dress for tomorrow.”
“That thing?” Bou scoffed. “You don’t have to wear it.”
“I’ve been working on it for months!”
“But it’s so plain. It’s not a party dress!”
“It is NOT plain! It’s subtle.”
“To you, maybe.”
“In this, you’d look like a dream. Like a star!”
“I’d look like a clown!”
Tears welled up in Bou’s eyes.
No, no, please don’t cry! Lemma was thinking. I don’t care if you cry—I won’t let your tears control me. But sh’he could feel a wave of guilt heading toward hir like the thunderclouds of a summer storm. Sh’he fended it off with anger.
“A tacky clown!”
“You’re calling my dream tacky?”
“Not your dream. Just your teenage taste.”
Riley gave hir a look—an eyebrow raised, a tilt of the head that said ‘Watch it—you’re going too far.’ Lemma took a deep breath, and tried to calm hirself. “I know the dress means a lot to you, Fama. It’s beautiful in your eyes. But it’s not what we wear.”
“Do you have to wear what everybody else wears? Don’t you have the courage to stand out?”
“But I don’t want to stand out! Not in that way.” Yet the guilt was sneaking up on hir, and that sinking feeling that maybe Bou was right. Maybe sh’he was just a conformist, maybe sh’he would never have the courage Bou had had.
“Oh, I get it. You just want to be like everybody else. Not unique. Not you.”
“Bou…” Riley warned.
“My own dress is me! I bred the sheep! I sheared the fleeces and spun the wool. I dyed the colors and invented the weave and designed it and sewed it!” It is me! Sh’he thought. It’s not like everybody else’s, even if everybody else had created their own in the same way. I would be brave enough to wear something different, I would! If I wanted to. But I don’t want to!
“Yes, yes, the cloth is beautiful. But it’s just two flat panels! It hides your figure.”
“Fama!” Lemma found the thought that Bou was observing hir figure deeply uncomfortable.
“You could fill this dress without stuffing the bodice with toilet paper. Why not show off your beautiful breasts?”
“Because I’m not competing with the cows!”
Tears were leaving tracks in Bou’s pancake makeup.
“I thought you loved me. I can’t believe that you would piss all over my dream.”
“It’s YOUR dream, not my dream! And it’s MY Rideup Ceremony, MY graduation, not yours!” And with that sh’he ran out of the caravan, slamming the door behind hir.
Riley let out a long sigh. It filled the caravan with decades of patience, forbearance, and love, as Bou’s silent tears turned to sobs.
Lemma spurred hir horse and galloped off across the plain, leaving a swathe of flattened grass in hir wake that sh’he knew Ben would be able to follow. The speed, the thunder of hooves, the rush of air blew some of the sadness away. Sh’he was running at a reckless speed, so fast that sh’he could think about nothing but the need to stay balanced and gently guide the power beneath hir.
Finally sh’he stopped, at the top of a low rise where sh’he could see for miles over the prairie. Wind rippled through the grasses in waves, like the sea. Lemma had never seen the sea, and suddenly sh’he longed to, to go far, far away and leave Bou and the Rories and everything behind hir.
Below hir gayfeathers made a splash of pink amidst the yellow of goldenrod, of snakeweed and a few late-blooming sunflowers. Tall blue grammas rose up from swathes of low-growing buffalograss. Birds that had once been endangered winged across the sky in great murmurations, chased by hawks. Far in the distance, sh’he spied the distinctive silhouette of a buffalo. It all made a beautiful tapestry, rich in diversity, subtle like hir dress was subtle.
They had been here for almost ten years. Lemma had been nine at their last Migration—old enough to remember how barren the land had been, dusty and desiccated, some of it covered with an evil-smelling white crust of old chemicals and salts. And silent—no bird calls, no whoosh of wings, not even the rhythmic chirruping of crickets or the buzz of insects. But they had restored it, with their careful, timed grazing of mobs of cows and sheep, giving the land just the right amount of disturbance at the right time, reseeding with native grasses and swathes of the newly-developed perennial grains. Then bringing back the buffalo to restore corridors of native prairie. That’s what they did, the Rories, the Religious Order of Regeneraters. They owned no land—except for the Motherhouse and its surrounding acres. They built no homes with permanent foundations. They came to land that was played out, eroded, infertile, sometimes even toxic. They brought it back to life and health. And then they moved on.
Bou was at the center of it all, with hir advice on species, on what to plant and when to graze and how long to rest between grazings. It was Bou’s genius that guided them in creating a mosaic of habitats that brought back so many different birds and flowers and native grasses. It was thanks to hir that a plover started up from a stand of bunchgrass, that late-blooming white clover still dotted the green.
Lemma was still mad, and sh’he held onto that anger, like a dog licking an injured paw, because if sh’he let go of it sh’he knew, underneath, that sh’he was going to feel terrible. Sh’he loved hir parents, sh’he did! Bou’s sadness touched some tender part of hir that wished sh’he could cry Bou’s tears so that Bou could let them go and heal that hurt. Sh’he wanted to be Bou’s consolation for all that sh’he’d suffered, hir dream come true. Sh’he could feel Bou’s huge disappointment threatening to overwhelm hir. Sh’he had to fight back, or sh’he would disappear forever into Bou’s history, Bou’s pain, Bou’s vulnerability, and be lost.
Sh’he heard the sound of hooves behind hir, and Ben rode up.
“There you are! Why didn’t you wait for me?” Ben pulled up beside hir, and studied Lemma’s blotchy face.
Lemma told hir the story. But somehow sh’he didn’t get the feeling that Ben really understood the tragedy of it. There were smile crinkles at the corners of Ben’s blue eyes, and hir sweet full lips were compressed, as if sh’he was holding back a smile.
“Why don’t you just wear it? It’ll be a laugh.”
“But that’s not what sh’he wants! Sh’he doesn’t want people to laugh at it, sh’he wants everybody to admire hir, to know how brave sh’he is!”
“People do admire hir. And they laugh at hir.”
“I know. But this is my Rideup, not hirs. I just want one night where I get to be the center of the story, not hir! Why does sh’he always have to make it so hard?”
Ben brought hir horse up beside Lemma’s, and reached for hir hand.
“That went well,” Riley said.
Bou sniffed and sobbed harder.
“Sometimes I have to remind myself that you are a world expert on prairie grasses.” Riley said.
Bou looked up. “What do you mean?”
“I mean for a very smart person you can be really dumb sometimes.”
“Thank you for that. Just how dumb am I?”
“Stop crying and I’ll tell you.”
“Why shouldn’t I cry? My precious dream has been shat upon.”
“No it hasn’t. You’re completely missing the point.”
Riley went over to the bunk and put an arm around Bou.
“You’ve given Lemma—we’ve given all of them, what we never had. That complete freedom to be who they are, who they want to be. Sh’he doesn’t need to wear the dress. That’s not hir battle! It was yours—and because it was yours, sh’he doesn’t need to fight it.”
“But sh’he thinks I’m tawdry. Sh’he said so.”
“And how did you feel about your mother’s beehive hairdo and pale, pale lipstick? “
Bou held out the dress, and gazed at it. “You’ll always be beautiful to me,” sh’he said to it wistfully.
“And to me,” Riley admitted. “But the young ones are different. They’re not attracted to lace and jiggling boobs. They get turned on by intricate weaving patterns.”
Bou sighed. “Do you ever miss them—the old sex roles? Sometimes I think we’ve lost something.”
Riley smiled. “We could always take a vacation—go visit the Forest Rories, with their Tea Dances and their Winter Balls. They’d love that dress!”
Bou sniffed. “They are out of their minds—switching genders every season! It would give me vertigo!”
“Could be fun.”
“To be honest, I don’t think I could still fit into it.” Sh’he held up the dress and looked at it sadly. “Maybe it is tacky. Maybe I’m tacky.”
“Not to me,” Riley slipped an arm around hir. “You’ll always be beautiful to me!”
“Really?” Bou nuzzled into Riley’s shoulder. “You mean that?”
“Maybe I like tacky,” Riley smiled. “You put on the dress. I’ll dance with you.”
“Here, in the caravan? There’s no room.”
“Outside, in the sunset, then. Or better yet, put the dress away. And just take off what you’re wearing now…”
The atmosphere was tense in the caravan as Lemma ate dinner with Bou and Riley, and that was so sad, because it should have been festive. They’d made a special dinner—rack of lamb, Riley’s special cream trifle. The caravan was small at the best of times, with the back end pretty much taken up by a big double bed, the front by their tiny kitchen and the fold-down table that extended across its full width. Lemma had been given the seat of honor, in the back, but that meant sh’he couldn’t escape if the tension reached a boiling point.
At least Bou had put the dress away, and even apologized, sort of.
“I’m sorry,” sh’he had said mournfully. “I shouldn’t have asked you to wear that dress. I should have known better than to expect…”
“Bou!” Riley cut in. “Enough said!”
Bou just sighed.
And that would have been fine, had it not been for the sighs and the mournful eyes and the subdued atmosphere that engulfed what should have an occasion of celebration.
Lemma retired early to hir own caravan, saying sh’he wanted to get a good sleep before the big day tomorrow. Just as sh’he was starting to undress, sh’he heard a soft knock.
“It’s me!” Riley called through the door.
“Come on in.”
Riley entered and took possession of the chair opposite the doorway. Lemma looked at hir warily.
“If you’ve come to ask me to wear that dress, I won’t!” Sh’he planted hir feet, hands on hips. “I won’t do it!”
“I haven’t come to ask you that. I wouldn’t ask that of you. I just thought you might need to talk.”
Lemma sighed and sank down onto hir bed, which took up the back of the caravan.
“I love hir. But why does sh’he always have to do this? It’s like everything has to revolve around hir! Even my Rideup! It’s so narcissistic!”
Riley shook hir head. “It’s not narcissism, really. It’s hir wound.”
“And I’m supposed to somehow heal it?”
“You can’t,” Riley said. “So no. No one expects that from you.”
“Not really.” Riley tipped the chair back so it leaned precariously against the wall. “Hir parents never saw who sh’he truly was—or when they caught a glimpse of it, they responded with horror and rejection. Sh’he never had that base of love and approval that you’ve always had from us. But there’s no way you can make up for that.”
But somehow I feel that I should. That I’m failing if I don’t. Lemma shook hir head sharply. “You grew up in the old times, too. You don’t harp on and on about it!”
“But I was born in a girl’s body, in Colorado. Still a little of the old west, where it was perfectly okay to be a tomboy, and everybody wore jeans! It was so different for hir. You can’t imagine…”
“I can! Goddess knows I’ve heard the story enough times!” But that was the problem—sh’he could imagine. And if sh’he did, sh’he would be sucked down, like a bug in the funnel of a trap-door spider’s hole, down and down to that void of a wound that could never be filled.
“Remember when you were a little one, and I used to rub your back to put you to sleep and tell you stories?”
Lemma smiled. “Wonder Bunny—the magic rabbit that could outrun anything that came after hir. Crazy Coyote, Frenetic Fox, even Wiley Wolf!”
“Sometimes it breaks my heart to think I’ll never do that again.”
“You might. You might tell those stories to my kids someday!”
“That’s true—but it won’t be the same. It won’t be you. And yet that’s the pain and beauty of being a parent, of watching anything grow. Change. Letting go. It’s not easy. But the best gift you can give Bou, can give us both, is to stand your ground and be who you are.”
“Maybe you could tell me a story, just one more time.”
Riley moved over to the bed, and Lemma curled up under the covers.
“One day Wonder Bunny was hopping through the food forest, munching on the greens, when sh’he heard a growl…”
Sh’he would be Wonder Bunny. Sh’he would hop, hop, hop away from the wolf of this aching tenderness that threatened to engulf hir.
Or sh’he could stop. Sh’he could face it, let it take hir, and trust that there was within hir some strong core that would emerge, changed, maybe, but alive and strong.
And in that moment, something shifted. As Riley’s soft voice crooned the story, as sh’he nestled into the warmth and love of hir own childhood, sh’he could feel hir own arms wrapped around a child, a hurt, wounded, baby Bou, and sh’he let that tenderness pour out like milk to nourish and heal hir. I see you, I see you, I care for you.
And in that moment, something shifted. This, sh’he thought, this is truly the moment of my Rideup, the real culmination of all those rituals and tests. I am not the child any longer. Bou is no longer the towering figure of the powerful adult. I can care for the child in hir. I can be myself. I am the grown-up now.
And in that moment, sh’he knew what they could do.
Lemma stood on the platform, looking out at the sea of proud faces before hir. The fifteen of them stood together, their age-cohort sharing this Rideup Presentation. Now all the tests were over—the tests of their academic knowledge, the practical tests in riding and roping and shepherding, and the spiritual tests—their time alone in the wilderness, the ceremonies they had created and led. Their subtle, handwoven clothing was a rite, as well—each outfit unique, fashioned from the wool and flax and hemp they had raised and processed and dyed.
“BeneficenceoftheGoddess Bell Darwish.”
Ben stepped forward as hir name was called. Sh’he had fashioned a tiered skirt, every layer more deeply hued than the last, and sh’he twirled a bit to show it off as sh’he reached for hir scroll. Sh’he took hir scroll of completion proudly as the assembled community applauded.
“Carex Aristida Weaver.”
Carrie stepped up in fringed trousers and an intricately patterned vest over a shirt of fine, white merino wool.
“Lemma Patricia Jameson-Miller.”
Lemma stepped up, and looked out to see Bou and Riley beaming with pride and love. I am so lucky to have them, sh’he thought. And I am worthy of their love.
When the last name was called, Lemma and Ben stepped forward again.
“Wait! We have one last Rideup to honor.”
Carex and Mahonia came out from behind the curtain, bearing the dress, newly steamed and pressed, in all its pink and frothy glory.
“This is the dress my Fama wore to hir Senior Prom. It was an act of incredible courage, to stand up and be hirself in a world that couldn’t see or support hir because sh’he didn’t fit the role. We honor hir courage, and the courage of all of our elders who made so many brave stands—the courage to hear the earth cry out for healing and found the Religious Order of Regenerators, the courage to be themselves against all the odds!
“Now it’s time for this dress and all it represents to Rideup and transform! Tonight we will each take a turn wearing the Brave Dress. We invite you all to dance with it, with all the pain and beauty of the past, so we can let it go!”
They danced in the big tent, the soft colors weaving and swirling like the prairie stirred by the wind—and the pink froth in the midst of them, an anomaly, a flash of some different, more artificial world, beautiful in an alien way, like a bright-colored clown tumbling through the grass.
After every dance, someone new took the dress, pulling it down over their own garments with laughter and tears. Bou hirself took a turn—and it was true that the dress no longer quite met around hir backside, but it didn’t matter. Bou whirled and the dress swirled around hir, and sh’he was laughing. Lemma took hir hands and swung hir around, and they danced together. And now the tenderness that had threatened to drown hir instead welled up as a wave of compassion for that teenage Bou, so foolish and wounded and brave. And a kind of strange nostalgia for someone who had never quite existed—the Bou who might have been, confident and proud, had the world ever reflected back hir unique beauty. But most of all, sh’he simply felt love for Bou as sh’he was, with all hir scars and wounds, who had nevertheless managed to love so fiercely and give so generously more than she’d been given.
At the end of the night, they lit the big bonfire in the center of the caravan circle, and the dance moved outside into the summer night. The drumming got wilder, the dance more ecstatic, the music faster and faster. The whole Rideup cohort now grabbed the dress, tossed it up and down until with a one, two three! they hurled it into the flames. A great shout went up, that turned into the low, sustained tone of focused power, as the beautiful dress flashed into flame.
Bou watched as the dress crumbled into char and ash. And yet somehow sh’he didn’t feel sad. Sh’he felt light, relieved of some long-carried burden. Sh’he looked at Lemma, alive and vibrant, wearing the wildflower colors of the prairie.
Lemma came over and stood next to Bou.
“Do you mind, Fama?” sh’he murmured. “Your beautiful dress!”
Bou shook hir head. “It was time to let it go.” Sh’he turned to Lemma and gently stroked hir hair. “I was wrong,” sh’he said softly. “I’m sorry. I should never have tried to make you wear that dress.”
“It was your dream. I understand.”
“No. The dream was never really about the dress.”
“You were the dream. You are the dream, the dream fulfilled.”
Sh’he slid hir arm around Lemma’s waist, and they stood together, watching the flames leap and spiral. Then the drums began, and the singing, and the dances got wilder and more ecstatic as the ritual reached its peak. Lemma felt power move in hir in a new way. Hir childhood was gone, now—hir new life beginning. Sh’he would stand on hir own, and dream hir own dreams, and weave the fabric of hir own life. That was all sh’he owed to those who came before hir, to be hirself, to face the challenges of hir own time with hir own brand of courage, grateful to those who withstood the trials of the past, confident of the healing sh’he would bring to the future.
Starhawk (she/her) is a writer, activist, permaculture designer and teacher, and a leading voice for ecofeminism and earth-based spirituality. She is the author of thirteen books on earth based spirituality and activism, including The Spiral Dance, The Earth Path, and The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups, on group dynamics and social permaculture, and her novels, The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge.
Together with director Donna Read Cooper, Starhawk has worked on five major documentaries, including the Goddess Trilogy for the National Film Board of Canada and Permaculture: The Growing Edge.
Starhawk directs Earth Activist Training, http://earthactivisttraining.org, which teaches the tools of regenerative design with a grounding in spirit, a focus on social permaculture, organizing and activism. Her website is http://starhawk.org, and she is on Twitter @Starhawk17 and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/StarhawkAuthor/.