Madden's drawing, The Big Mouth, was also featured in our 2015 issue.

Giver of Life

Dawn S. Davies

It was probably about three-thirty on a Tuesday afternoon, although it was an overcast winter day and hard to tell by the light in the sky. I was in eighth grade, which was bad enough, but I was also new in town, riding the junior high bus home from school, determined to keep a low profile in front of the group of bully girls who sat in the back, the ones who had undertaken the daily challenge of trying to make me cry without the bus driver noticing. They had gotten me only once at the beginning of the first week, but every day was a battle.

My strategy on this day had been to appear to be so engrossed in my paperback that I looked at and spoke to no one, not even the pre-pubescent sixth graders. I turned toward the window, pressed my forehead against the cold glass and read while we drove past snow-covered hills and swells of neatly parceled quarter acre lots. The bus was warm and they left me alone, likely because the ringleader, a thick girl named Darlene, was not on the bus that afternoon. I let my guard down and sank deeply into my book, until at one point when the bus slowed, I noticed a silence within it. I lifted my head and saw that, except for the driver and myself, the bus was empty. I had missed my stop.

“Let’s go, kiddo,” the bus driver shouted back. I zipped up my coat and walked to the front.

“Can you tell me which way Blue Spruce Lane is?” I asked.

“You’re new,” he said.

“Yes, sir.”

“You missed it.”

“It’s okay.”

“When you get out, take this road north,” he said. “It’s not too far. I’d take you, but thanks to stinkin’ Carter and his energy shortage. I can’t back track my route. They keep track of our gas now.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

When I jumped down off the step, the snow snapped hard under my feet like frozen sugar. My boots were thick, chunky astronaut boots that were hard to walk in. Three weeks previously, I had never worn winter boots, or a winter coat. I clumped over to the curb and watched the bus drive up the hill, then looked around at the silence and took a deep breath.

When the bus fumes cleared, I couldn’t smell anything but the cold. It burned going in my nose. There was no smell of the earth, or of decaying humus from dropped leaves, or the sweet scent of a breeze, or the salt of the ocean, or a pot roast leaking out from underneath a door. There was no particular light in the sky that might tell me which way the sun was setting. I didn’t hear a bird, or a rustle of air or a wind chime, just the sound of my breath in my head and the hard snow under my feet. The trees were long naked for the season, and everything I saw looked drawn up and tightened against the cold. It gave me the kind of feeling I would eventually grow to understand about upstate New York in the middle of February, where there is not a lot of hope to go around, and clouds press down on the daylight that is fighting to hang in there, bringing night before anyone is ready. I dug deep into my pockets for the pair of mittens my mother had bought me, then pulled my hood up over my head. I had no idea which way was north.

I turned and started walking without any proof that I was headed in the right direction. The problem was my understanding of direction had everything to do with sunshine, and the feel of the ocean in the west. Back in San Diego, you could put a blindfold on me, drive me to a place I didn’t recognize, and I could point to the direction of my house, and also towards the North Pole. It had to do with the light in the sky, and the sense of the sea, and a feeling of safety and of knowing my place. Here, it was the same anemic, voiceless light in all directions. The day we moved in my father walked me down to the mailbox at the curb, turned me left by my shoulders, and pointed to Blue Spruce Lane, which ran perpendicular to our street. “If you get lost, Von, just remember to find Blue Spruce and take it north. It will run right into our street.”

On Friday, I had gotten off the bus too early. It had taken me half an hour to find Blue Spruce, and when I did, I turned south on it instead of north, walking up and down the empty suburb until I wept. It was dark when I had gotten home, and I walked in to the sound of scrubbing, and some sort of meal mixed with the smell of bleach. The house smelled like bleach all the time now but we were used to it. Our old house had smelled like bleach, too.  My parents used to be west-coast hippies, but after my uncle had died in Vietnam, something had snapped in my mother, and one of the side effects was her need to keep things germ-free. My father had coped fairly well, but he had sold his small real estate company and moved us east so he could work for a mortgage company that had good medical coverage for my mother.

I had taken off my coat and boots and left them in the foyer, then followed the small sound of television laughter into the kitchen. The end of The Phil Donahue Show was on the new portable black and white set my father had gotten my mother when we moved. My mother was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the kickboards by the refrigerator with a stiff brush and a bucket of chemicals. My teeth were chattering, I couldn’t feel my toes, and the backs of my legs were numb from the cold wind.

“You home already, honey?”

“It’s a quarter to five.”

“So it is. I guess I lost track of time,” she said. I grabbed a stack of Nutter Butters and sat down at the kitchen table.

“Did you maybe wonder where I was?” I asked.

“I figured you had met up with some friends. How was your day?” Her bottom was facing me now, her head pointing into a corner.

“The same,” I said. “I got lost again. All the houses look alike.”

“You’ll get the hang of it.”

“When’s dinner? What’s dinner?”

“Crock pot chicken. We’ll eat when your father gets home. Are you doing what I told you to do?” My mother believed that by simply saying yes to any social opportunity that came my way, I would become both class president and cheerleading captain by spring. It was her personal game theory, but she had not taken into account that I had a frank way of speaking that wasn’t always well received, and that kids my age in the Northeast seemed to be insular and exclusive, and as cold as the snow on the ground.

“There were some girls at lunch this week. I talked to them.”

“And?”

“It didn’t go well. They called me Bambi,” I said.

“I don’t know how they’d get ‘Bambi’ from Bhavani. They’re probably just jealous you are from sunny California.”

“I don’t think it’s that, Mom.”

“Well, you have to grow up sometime,” she had said. “Life’s not all shits and giggles.”

My parents didn’t understand the kind of trouble I was having. It was a long time since either one of them had been fourteen, and if you are a certain kind of person, time has a way of erasing the unpleasant. They underestimated the struggle of breaking into a new social group when your peers are at the worst they will ever be in their lives. When I had gotten on the school bus the morning of the second day, and the bus had grown silent, I knew I was in for it. I walked down the aisle and each student I approached edged uneasily outward toward the aisle when I got close. Every time I tried to sit, a kid would slide over more and say, “Darlene says no.” After the fifth time, I said, loudly, “Who’s Darlene?” No one answered.  I ran my eyes across each face and met a variety of expressions, some blank, some embarrassed, some nervous. In the back of the bus on the right I saw a big, pink-cheeked girl with black hair under a red beret, wearing a subtle sneer and I knew who Darlene was.

“You can kiss my ass, Darlene. I’ll sit where I want,” I said, loudly enough for it to carry. I found the smallest kid, shoved her over and sat down.

Darlene had a crew of four or five other girls who seemed to do her bidding in the hallways or in the lunch room or in the girls’ bathroom.  On Monday of the second week, when I walked past their lunch table, I heard a series of obviously fake sneezes. I turned with my tray and faced them.

“Do you have a problem?” I said.

“Who me? No,” Darlene said.

“If you have something to say, just say it. Don’t be a punk and say things behind my back.”

“Ooooooh,” someone said at one of the nearby tables. The cafeteria hushed.

“Do you have a problem, Bambi?” one of the girls said. Darlene looked at her.

“My name’s not Bambi. It’s Bhavani,” I said, like I’d said a dozen times the previous week.

“Where’d you get that name?”

“My parents lived on an ashram when I was born. They named me after a Hindu goddess,” I shrugged. I had mistaken the question as one of interest, and not bait, and as soon as I answered I knew I had said too much.

“The goddess Bambi?” Darlene said.

“No. Bhavani. It means ‘giver of life,’” I said.

“I’ll bet it does,” she said.  I stood there.

“You’re dismissed,” she said. She turned away from me and back to her friends.

Later that day, in the science wing bathroom, I was sitting on the toilet with my book bag on the floor beside me. I heard the door open, and saw several pairs of feet, then I heard the faucet. A moment later, a cup of water dumped on my head, and someone snatched my book bag from under the stall door.

“Hey!” I shouted, but my pants were around my ankles and there wasn’t much I could do. I pulled up my pants and then picked up my papers and books off of the bathroom floor.

For the next two weeks they tripped me in the hall, stole my gym shirt, dumped milk onto my lunch tray, and told everyone they know my name was Bambi. The kids in the school, and eventually some of the teachers, picked up the name, no matter how many times I corrected them.

The breeze I had felt turned into a wind and stung my face. I followed the curve of the street until I came to a crossroads that said Ushers and Beresford. I didn’t remember seeing those streets before, or hearing my parents mention them, though it was possible we had driven on at least one of them. They were wide streets that seemed to be the kind that would connect our neighborhood with other places.  Perhaps I was going the right way, but no way I faced felt the least bit north. The roads were empty, so I walked across the middle of Ushers at a diagonal, and on to Beresford, imagining for a moment, that a virus had wiped out most of the planet and I had to walk for miles, days even, before I found another person. What if I were the only human left on Earth, I wondered? What would that be like, that loneliness? I thought I knew. I kept walking. A quick, red bird darted from a telephone wire and into an evergreen, plucking at frosty berries. I heard a tiny, scolding chitter before it flew away.

Beresford curved and went uphill. I leaned into it and into the wind and walked on. When my dad sold his business and took a job with the New York bank, my mom put on a brave face and bought the three of us winter coats so we would have something to wear when we got to New York. Upstate would be very cold, she said.  Back in San Diego, they looked like decent coats because they seemed to be quilted and filled with something soft, and had hoods with fake fur, and we got hot when we tried them on in our living room. In San Diego, they sell coats for people who live in San Diego and never suffer through real cold. This New York cold could kill me, I decided. My coat was thinner than the coats I had seen the other kids wearing, and seemed to be filled with a cheap polyester fill, instead of down or wool or whatever else they put in them to keep the wind from biting through your bones. A fresh gust smacked me head-on. My nose flowed, tears leaked from my eyes and I had to wipe my face, first with the mittens, and then finally, when they became too stiff, with the fake fur around the hood. I passed white ranch houses with grey shutters and red doors, and white colonials with black shutters, white columns and red doors. In a colonial with a black door and black shutters, I saw a pale, moon-faced little girl in a turtleneck and a low ponytail looking out of the living room window. I waved and she closed the curtain.

It was so cold my feet were starting to ache. It had to be past four o’clock. I imagined my mother scrubbing the dormer steps with bleach, or bent over in the master shower, scrubbing the grout, not noticing the time, not wondering where her only child was, because she didn’t think like that anymore. She liked to vacuum the house a half hour before my father got home so he could see the lines in the carpet the vacuum left behind, I guess so he could see she did something with her days. Sometimes, for fun, she would make decoupage boxes, but this was not often.

I saw a new street, Burning Bush, and turned left on it, walking with no idea if I was going in the right direction. I missed my friends back in San Diego. We had known each other, our likes, our foibles, our embarrassments. Once, at a fair, my friend Jenny laughed while she was drinking grape juice, and it shot out of her nose like a hemorrhage, ruining her white shirt a half an hour before she was to ride the Ferris wheel with Doug Stilton. I switched shirts with her and wore the stained one for the rest of the night. When my cat got run over by a car, my other friend Amber stayed up with me all night while I cried. Those are the kinds of things we did for each other.  These New York kids, at best, were clutchy and tight, and at worst, downright cruel in ways I had never thought people could be.

When I walked past a white colonial on my right, I saw a flock of crows burst up from a dead tree and arc into the sky, and then I heard a low laugh. I looked up on the front porch and saw three girls standing out on the front porch sharing a cigarette. They looked at me, nudged each other, and bent their heads together. I saw black shaggy bangs fall across a wide, white forehead and I recognized Darlene. Not implausible, I thought, though unfortunate. She did ride my same bus route, and I was bound to run into her in the neighborhood at some point. She called out, “Hey, Bambi.” I stopped and faced them, looking up at the porch with my hands in my pockets.

“It’s not Bambi. It’s Bhavani.”

“We know. We’re just kidding, right?” The other two girls nodded.

“Okay,” I said. I waited, not sure whether to move on or stay talking.

“We’re having a smoke. You wanna come up?” she asked.

“I don’t smoke.” I stomped my feet to keep them warm.

“That’s okay.”

Maybe my mother was right, I thought. I knew I was desperate, but maybe she was right about making myself available.  I shook off my caution and walked up the icy driveway towards the porch. Darlene took a last drag, put the tip of the cigarette in the snow on the porch railing, then flicked the butt into the bushes. The three girls turned and went inside, the last one holding the storm door open for me.

I stepped inside and my feet and face burned with a rush of warmth. It felt as much of a shock as the cold had been. The house was dark, with older looking furniture, turned maple legs and patterned upholstery. The air smelled damp and thick, like nobody ever dusted. There was a faint scent of mothballs, which was a fair bit worse than bleach, I thought. It smelled stagnant.

“Here,” one of the other girls said. Let me take your coat.” I stood in the foyer and unzipped it and she pulled it away from my arms, turning the sleeves inside out before tossing it on the second floor stairway. I stepped out of my wet boots.

“I’m Jen,” she said. “That is Michelle and you know Darlene.” Jen pointed to the big, black-haired girl. Darlene had twenty pounds on any one of us. “This is Darlene’s house.”

“You weren’t on the bus today.”

“Michelle and Jen were. I had a doctor’s appointment at lunch,” Darlene said over her shoulder. She walked through the foyer, and tossed the afghan onto a chair into the dining room.  The other girls followed so I did, too.

“We’ve been giving you a hard time the past few weeks, but it’s for a reason.” She stopped in the dining room and turned around. “It was all part of a test, like a secret initiation. We messed around with you and you passed. You didn’t tattle so we want to invite you to be in our club.” Jen and Michelle nodded.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes. You should be flattered. Not everyone gets invited into our club. It’s very exclusive.”

“What kind of club is it?” This could be good, I thought. Better than I expected. Not just one but three friends. I saw sleepovers, movies, and the kind of camaraderie I had left behind in San Diego.

“It’s a very special club.” Darlene moved through the dining room and into the kitchen. The rest of us followed. The kitchen was dark. When Darlene flicked on the light I could see there were no curtains or blinds on the windows, no cookie jar or canister of whisks and spatulas on the counter. No spider plants in macramé hangers in the breakfast nook window, no placemats on the kitchen table, no magnets on the refrigerator.

“So. Bhavani. Giver of life. Let’s go downstairs and we’ll show you the clubhouse.” Darlene opened a drawer and grabbed a flashlight. The stairwell was dark.

“Where’s your mom?” I asked.

“At work,” she said, then flicked on a wall light and lit the stairway. “Come on, let’s go.” She opened the door wide and Jen and Michelle went down first, then me, then Darlene followed, closing the door behind her.

Downstairs there was a remnant of carpet covering the concrete floor, two old, green velour recliners, a couple of TV trays and a case of cream soda. On top of the case of soda was a jump rope. There were smiling posters of Scott Baio, Michael Jackson, and Farrah Fawcett taped to the wall, and one of Dorothy Hamill, in white skates and a gold brocade vest, that made eye contact no matter where you moved in the room. On one wall was a black and white cat clock, with a ticking tail and moving eyeballs. Unfinished, vertical metal posts were spaced out at about ten foot intervals, holding up beams across the basement ceiling. They were rusty brown.

“What kind of club is this, again?” I felt slightly uneasy.

“It’s a hangout club. We hang out and talk about things. Sometimes we do stuff,” Darlene said.

“What kind of stuff?” I asked. All three of the girls remained standing, and I didn’t like it.

“Sit down. Make yourself comfortable, “Darlene said, and pressed me into one of the velour chairs. “You want a cream soda? Jen, get her a soda.” Jen moved across the room, tossed the jump rope on the other chair, and pulled out a can. She opened it, handed me the soda, and placed the curled pull tab on one of the TV trays.

“So. What do you like to do, Bambi?”

“Well, I play flute, and I…”

“You play flute, huh? That must be fun,” Darlene said. “Didn’t you play flute, Michelle?”

“No,” Michelle said. “Why would I ever play flute?” Michelle came over and sat on the arm of my chair. She pulled a piece of her ponytail forward and began to suck on it.  “You ever join a club before, Bambi?”

“It’s Bhavani,” I said. “I joined photography club at my old school.” As soon as this came out of my mouth, I knew it was wrong.

“She joined photography club,” Darlene said. “Did photography club have an initiation, Bambi?”

“No,” I said. “Listen, I think it’s time for me to go home now.” I started to stand and Michelle grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed me back down.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “Darlene, Bambi says she wants to go home.”

“Bambi hasn’t done her initiation yet.”

“Here’s the thing,” I said. I stood. “I changed my mind. I don’t want to join the club. I think I should just go home.” Michelle and Jen grabbed my arms. Darlene tossed them a roll of duct tape.

“Tie her up. Bambi, here’s how it works: in order to get into the club, you’re going to have to take off your pants and let us look at your beaver.”

“My what?”

Jen pulled my head back by the hair and held my hands behind my back while Michelle quickly taped them tightly together.

“Your beeve. Your cooze. You know.”

“I’m not doing that,” I said. “I don’t even know you. I don’t want to be in your stupid club! I just want to go home.”

“Nope. You said you wanted to be in the club. You’re going to be in the club. Get her down, Michelle.” Michelle pushed me backwards and I fell, then she grabbed the jump rope and tied my left foot to a post. I tried to kick my free leg.

The three of them freed my right leg from my pants and underwear, despite my kicking. I felt my sock roll off my foot.  I yelled for help.

“There’s no one going to hear you,” Darlene said, “And besides, crybabies can’t be in the club.”

“I don’t want to be in the club,” I shouted. “Stop it!”

Darlene rolled me onto my knees. “Bow down,” she said.” I lay there, my forehead on the musty carpet, my hands tied behind my back. One of the girls jerked my shirt up above my head. Darlene put the case of soda under my pelvis.

I kicked again with my free leg and got somebody. Then I felt a blow against my ribs.

“You can do this the hard way, or the easy way,” Darlene said. “You fight us and we’ll fight you back. You let us see and it will be over fast. You’ll be a member of the club.”

“I told you I don’t want to be in the club. Let me go.” I felt a yank on my hair and my head came up. I could see Darlene’s fat, round face five or six inches away. Her lips were full and had vertical lines in them like a worm, and I could see the white scales of chapped skin flaking off of them. Her cheeks were a deep, capillary red. Her eyes were so black I could not see the pupils. Her breath was sour.

“Here’s how it’s going to go, Bambi.”

“Stop fucking calling me Bambi,” I shouted. It was the first time I had ever used that word.

“If I want to call you Bambi, I’m going to call you Bambi. Around here, I’m the giver of life, you get that?” She had my hair pulled so hard that the skin on my face stretched back.

“And nobody talks back to the giver of life in the lunch room, or on the bus, or anywhere. Are we clear?”

“Okay,” I said.

She released my hair and my forehead hit the ground. They spread my legs. There was nothing I could do. I saw my mother on all fours in our old den, dressed in a leotard and shiny tights, doing leg lifts to Jane Fonda’s exercise tape, then saw her on her hands and knees in our new kitchen, this time scrubbing the floor with bleach. I pictured a dog peeing on a bush. I saw my father giving me horsie rides on his hands and knees in Balboa Park, and me, walking in on my parents one Saturday morning, early, before the sun was up, finding my mother on all fours on the bed, my father behind her wearing just his t-shirt, before they scrambled to get under the covers.  I knelt there in that basement on my knees and let the girls examine my privates with the flashlight, laughing, telling me I was too ugly for anyone to ever love me. Their voices faded into one another and I went to another place, a place where there were birds, a pelican down on the dock, shining in the sun, with a big fish in its beak, the snow white Bali myna at the zoo, with the exotic blue eye shadow, the dusty red cardinal plucking berries off the bush, the flock of black birds that flew into the twilight before I stepped into Darlene’s house. I followed those birds north, where the spring was just beginning, and waited.

When it was over, they untied me, kicked my sock over to where I sat. I got dressed without a word. Darlene got herself a cream soda and sat down on one of the chairs. Jen and Elizabeth sat in the other.

“Well, you passed,” she said. “How’s it feel to be in the club?”

I didn’t answer. I sat there for a few moments.

“I need to go home now,” I said.  I stood up. The room was silent except for the cat clock, with its ticking eyeballs and moving tail, clicking and ticking, looking at me. Dorothy Hamill and Michael Jackson and Scott Baio and Farrah Fawcett and Jen and Michelle and Darlene all looked at me. I felt filthy, shamed.

“Okay,” Darlene said. “You can sit with us at lunch tomorrow. Go ahead and let yourself out.”

As I walked to the basement door, she said, “Congratulations!” and I could hear the three girls laugh.

Upstairs, the house was dark. I put on my coat and boots, and stepped outside. It was colder than it was earlier, perhaps colder than I had ever felt. I could see the moon light up a section of the sky, and the way I was walking suddenly felt north, though I could not explain why. I didn’t think about what had happened. I thought about going home. I passed a ranch corner house and a bare tree with a particular bent in the trunk that I thought I had seen before. I kept walking. The ice crunched under me like an animal eating something with bones. I didn’t cry.

A few minutes later, I saw Blue Spruce. I looked left and right, and knew to go left. I could smell a fire burning in someone’s fireplace. Now and again, a car would drive past slowly, the headlights illuminating the dirty snow on the street. I followed Blue Spruce for a quarter of a mile until I saw Alpine, my own street. I turned and saw my house at the corner of the cul de sac on the left. In the light of the living room window, I could see my mother vacuuming the carpet, and I knew, when I stepped in, that the house would smell like bleach. I knew, that when we sat down to supper and I told my parents that I got lost again, they would chuckle and shake their heads. I knew that there was no way I was going to sit with those girls at lunch, that there was no club. And I knew that if you don’t know how to get home, you’re an idiot. You should always know how to get home, no matter where you are. You should always know which way is north.


Interview with Dawn S. Davies

Border Crossing: “Giver of Life” delivers the story of Bhavani, a middle-school aged girl who moves to another state and experiences traumatic abuse at the hands of her female classmates. What compelled you to write this particular story? Tell us about the process of writing it. What drives your interest in the subject of female bullying?

Dawn S. Davies: As a child, I moved every two or three years. I had to start over at new schools, navigating my way through increasingly difficult social climates as I got older.  Because of this, I remember what it feels like to be the outsider in a group of kids, and what it’s like to walk into a room and have no one looks at you with kindness in their eyes. I was picked on briefly, yet regularly, every time I moved. I would come home from school feeling like I had been in a war zone all day. As the new kid, the other kids always poked at me a bit to see how I would react.  I do recall fighting a girl during my first week at my new school in 7th grade. I didn’t want to do it at all. It was an orchestrated event, with kids passing notes to advertise the fight, which was to take place after school.  A huge crowd showed up. My memory has me kicking the girl’s ass. She was short. I was six feet tall. That’s how it had to go down, even though I don’t like to hurt people.  We were friends after that, but I understand that feeling of school being a hostile place, and of children’s social networks being laced with emotional minefields.

Also, I have a son with autism who was bullied regularly by neurotypical kids who did terrible things to him, both physically and emotionally, starting in about second grade, and continuing through high school. This despite all the vocal “No Bullying” policies the school district claimed to support.  It finally ended after ninth grade, when we moved him to a better school district in a kinder state.

I think people assume that male bullying is more physical, and female bullying is more emotional, but I don’t think that is always the case. I know girls who have been physically challenged against their wills, and I know boys who are left emotionally bereft by the simple act of ostracization and exclusion from other groups of boys.  I wanted to explore the more physical side of female bullying in “Giver of Life” because it does happen.  I also wanted to touch on sexualized bullying, which is horrifying at any level, but especially difficult for young people, who are in the midst of dealing with their own power, and the fine line between embarrassment, which happens so easily to young teens, and humiliation, which is so much harder to recover from, especially when they are not developmentally ready to think of themselves as sexual beings.

BC: Why did you choose to set the story in the 1970s in upstate New York?

DSD: I think the 1970s was the last of the “simple times” before most people had cable TV that I believe so heavily  influenced children’s social behavior. It was also before cell phones, when you couldn’t call someone for help, or even let someone know you were going to be late, or log into Google Maps to give you directions.  I wanted to write about old-school bullying, the pared-down, yet equally complex sort that took place before cyber-anything, when there was a person with a real face doing the deed and people often had to handle things on their own.

Although I am from the South, I have experienced Northern winters and I find them lonely and rather haunting, and they evoke a sort of still emptiness that intrigues me. The story is set in upstate New York during the middle of winter because I wanted to use the cold and stillness of a northern winter to depict alienation, and the emptiness that Bhavani feels facing her new life. I wanted to juxtapose the sunny, temperate climate of her happier family life in California with the cold, empty, crunching ice, and the white snow that hides the defining elements of the landscape, and contributes to her disorientation.

BC:  Although this is clearly Bhavani’s story, at its heart, her mother’s character is extremely well-developed. She is haunted by grief over the death of her brother during the Vietnam War, and she is described not once but several times by the narrator as on her hands and knees, scrubbing the house clean.  What is it about her character and this image that fascinated you as a writer—and how does it relate to Bhavani’s story?

DSD: Essentially, this story is not only about an act of bullying, but about a girl whose family has changed drastically for the worse. Bhavani’s mother, although physically present, is not emotionally available for her daughter at a time when Bhavani needs her, and although Bhavani knows this on some level, she resents it.  The mother spends her time cleaning in a useless, yet metaphoric way, preoccupied with controlling the only thing she feels she can control. The act of being on her knees can be alternately seen as pleading, or perhaps prayer-like, or even sexual, and it is the same position Bhavani assumes when she is assaulted. I find the mother’s state of mind terribly sad for both the mother, who is sliding into mental illness during a time when there were few resources, and for Bhavani, who is so lost. The mother is clearly no longer the heart of this home.  As well, I believe the early teen years are a critically important time in the parent-child relationship, yet it is often a time when the relationship begins to bifurcate, for any number of reasons. Ultimately, the battles children wage in school are made more difficult when they have parents who are no longer, or never have been, their touchstones.

BC: What happens to Bhavani during the traumatic final scene that would cause her to suddenly possess geographical orientation? Leaving the house, Bhavani claims she suddenly has the ability to find her way home, to know which way is “north”—what happens to her that causes her to feel this way? And did you see her as truly growing, somehow, from this experience, or did you see her epiphany as false?

DSD: Although the end of the story is somewhat ambiguous, and we don’t have the satisfaction of seeing Bhavani triumph over Darlene, Bhavani does change.  During that walk home, a few things happen. First, she begins to formulate a permanent guard against others, an almost unconscious act that stems not only from Darlene’s abuse, but from her awareness that she ignored her gut feelings and trusted Darlene, in an idiomatic “fool me once, fool me twice…”way. She goes cold, so to speak. To me, the loss of trust is the loss of innocence, and Bhavani is no longer an innocent girl.

Also, getting lost is a child-like act, not the act of a woman.  When Bhavani realizes that she knows where she is and that navigating home, or navigating her life, is up to her, a part of her childhood is shed, and she faces – perhaps too early – the fact that protecting herself is going to be up to her from now on. It is sad, isolating revelation, one which I suspect many bullied children face before they should have to.