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Radishes

by Phyllis Martens

Margaret stood by the front gate of the boarding school and waited. She had put on her white Sunday dress and shoes. She was sitting on a low wall near the sign 'Highclerc School, Kodaikanal, India.' Her heart was pounding. Today! They had promised they would come today. She would get away from this place.

When the old black Ford drove around the corner, her knees went wobbly. The next minute she was hugging her dad and her mother and her little brother Sam. They walked to her room in the dormitory to pick up her suitcase. The other children were all in the dining room.

Her dad had rented a stone cottage around the lake from the school. Eucalyptus trees and bracken grew on the hillside. It was a lovely place. Her dad hung a swing from a branch so high that when she swung out over the hillside it felt like flying. He also hired a man to dig a flat place for the children to plant a garden. Margaret chose radishes. There wasn't time for them to grow into real radishes, her father said, kneeling in the black dirt to help her plant the seeds, but she could watch them come up. She and Sam watered the radishes once or twice a day.

Her mother took her along to the Kashmir Shop in the bazaar. At night Margaret cuddled up against Sam's fat little tummy in the bed they shared and told him stories. She forgot about the bad school feeling.

But one day at lunch her mother remarked, "Five more days. We'd better get your clothes ready."

Margaret stopped eating. "I don't want to go back," she quavered. "I hate boarding school!"

"But Margaret!" Her mother paused. "The matron said you keep to yourself too much. You'll enjoy school much more if you make friends. What about Ingrid?"

That night the bad feeling came back. Margaret couldn't go to sleep. She kept remembering the miserable cold rainy days when school started in January. She had been dreadfully homesick. She missed the mission station with its pink flowery bushes, and making mud houses with Sam, and hearing Sam call her "Ma-git" because he couldn't say his r's, and the cook bringing in curry at noon. At school they had meat balls and horrid turnips.

It wasn't her fault she was miserable! And her mother said it was! She wanted her to be friends with Ingrid, the fat little roommate who chewed the ends of her yellow braids. Margaret wanted her mother to hug her, sympathize, say how sad it was that little girls had to be away from home. Her mother just always said, "But Margaret!"

She sometimes thought her parents didn't love her very much. The worst thing had been them sending her to Kodai with the Lawrences. Kodai was in the mountains five hundred miles from the mission station. Her father had explained that he had a great deal of work just then supervising the school for Indian children, and that it was hard for mother to travel with Sam, who often got sick on trains, and that Mr. Lawrence had offered to take her along with their own two daughters, who were also going to Kodai. Margaret stared at him. All that long trip to a place she had never been before, by herself?

"I don't want to go with Lawrences!" she screamed, and burst into tears.

"But Margaret!" her mother said. "You're a big girl now. You're in third grade. You'll have to get used to doing things without us in boarding school."

All that long horrible train ride Margaret had sat huddled in a corner looking out at the fields rushing by. Her parents, she decided, cared about the Indian children more than her. That's what it came down to. Her mother went there almost every day to teach the girls, and her dad worked in the office. Margaret decided she hated the Indian children's school. She was going to hate Kodai too.

Kodai was even worse than she imagined. Her room in the dorm was small, with two beds and two dressers. The Lawrence girls helped her unpack and ran off to find their friends

Margaret went to the third grade classroom every day and did her homework and ate in the dining hall, but inside of her was a bad, heavy feeling. She cried when she got letters from home--she couldn't help it. Shy little Ingrid, her roommate, tried to comfort her, but Margaret turned away.

Not for a single day had she been happy, until the day her family arrived for vacation.

Now it was only five days and she would have to go back to the dorm. In bed beside Sam, listening to his tiny snore, Margaret lay stiff and unhappy.

The next day a telegram came for her father, brought up by bus from the train station. He and her mother had a hasty discussion.

At lunch her father said, "Something has happened. A drunken man from the village came to our mission school and dragged his two children out of the classroom. The teachers are afraid--they beg us to come back immediately. We've decided to leave tomorrow."

Tomorrow? Margaret stared at him. Her stomach did a violent flip. "Why can't they call the police?" she demanded.

"The police won't interfere in family matters," her mother said.

"What about me? I don't want to go back to boarding school!" Margaret shouted. "You just care about those Indian children!"

Her mother touched her hand. "But Margaret, that's why we came to India. That man could hurt his children badly. Everyone is very frightened. It's only three days earlier than we planned."

Sam had wandered outside. He came running in, very excited. "The wadishes are gwowing! Some gween things are sticking up!"

Margaret slammed out of her chair and went to look. Bright little fuzzy leaves were spreading above the black earth. It would have been fun to watch them get bigger. But now they were leaving, the very next day.

When her mother called to help pack her things, Margaret obeyed. She wouldn't look at her mother, who was cheerfully packing, though her eyes were a little red. By evening the suitcases were ready. In his prayer that evening, her father asked that all of them be kept safe, mentioning especially the children of that drunken man in the village.

Early the next morning while her father loaded the car, Margaret said goodbye to the swing and to their radish garden. Silently she got into the car, and they drove away.

Her father carried her suitcase to her room. It was time to say goodbye. Sam gave her a sticky kiss. Her parents hugged her.

"Five months and you'll be coming home," her father said, patting her on the head.

Her mother looked at her in a worried way, but said cheerfully, "Be a brave girl. Don't forget to write to us!"

And then they were gone.

School had started again yesterday, but Margaret had been absent because of her parents leaving. Today she had to catch up. She was too busy to think about much else.

After four o'clock tea she walked slowly back to the dorm, thinking of her mother in her blue print dress, her dad, Sam at the car window.

A week went by, then another. Sometimes she forgot to be sad, mostly when all the third graders were on a hike to the falls or doing their homework together in study hall. But always at bedtime she felt alone, sad, and angry, like one of those little bazaar children nobody seemed to want. She wrote "How are you I am fine" when the dorm matron said everybody had to write home, and that was all, so they would know how sad, miserable, and angry she was.

One day after school she opened the door to her room, and stopped. On the windowsill, planted in a shoebox filled with black dirt, were her radishes.

She ran to them. They were much bigger; she could see the tops of hard balls forming just under the dirt. A tiny note was stuck into the dirt with a toothpick. She opened it quickly and read, "Keep them in the sun. Don't water them too much. With all my love to my dearest daughter, Mother."

Her mother had remembered! She must have told the gardener to dig up the radishes and plant them in the shoebox and bring them to her room! She wanted to comfort her little girl! Margaret sat on the floor and cried with homesickness and the beginning of happiness.

"These are from our summer cottage," she told Ingrid. "We planted them but then I had to come back to school. I guess the gardener brought them." Ingrid touched the leaves with admiration.

That night in bed Margaret figured it out. Her mother really had to go back to take care of all the Indian children because that was her job. Maybe she would rather be here with Margaret, but she couldn't. It was a comforting thought.

Another thought came to her. Maybe her mother acted cheerful so that Margaret wouldn't feel sad. Maybe she was just as sad inside too but was trying to be brave.

This new thought was so startling that Margaret wanted to get up and write her mother right away. But instead she fell asleep.