I remember the
day, when I first learned to lie. It was on a warm day in April, the
first sunny day after an icy winter in 1946. After attending Mass at
dawn I ate breakfast which consisted of powdered eggs and toast topped
with butter. It wasn't real butter but the kind of butter that came
in a block of white greasy looking stuff accompanied by a small packet
of yellow coloring. My assignment each day was to mix in the coloring
and then, after spreading out the mixture on a tray, cut it into small
Elizabeth and I, after finishing our kitchen chores, headed for the
girls' playground located at the south end of the main building of Saint
Patrick's, a boarding school in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Originally, it was
an Indian Mission built in the late 1800's, but now there were also
non-Indian children living there. I had been placed there by the state
after I was taken from my parents and so had Elizabeth.
On the day that Elizabeth arrived at Saint Pat's, I was hiding in the
bushes near the entrance to the grounds, pretending I was invisible.
Sitting and watching the long, gravel road that lead to the highway,
I prayed that my mom would somehow miraculously appear and take me home.
As I sat patiently waiting, a Trailways bus pulled to a stop and a young
girl got off. She walked toward me lugging her battered cardboard suitcase
that was cinched closed with a worn leather strap, the bright Oklahoma
sunlight forming a halo above her golden hair. This vision of saintly
beauty not only left me breathless, but also compelled me to run forward
and reach out to help carry her heavy burden.
"Hi." I said shyly as I reached out and grabbed the handle of her suitcase.
"Hi yourself, my name's Elizabeth but don't call me Liz. I hate it!
What's your name?"
"Mary Margaret, but just 'Mary' is fine. That's what everyone calls
me, except the nuns. They call me Mary Margaret."
After Elizabeth checked in at the main building, I quickly volunteered
to take her to the girls' dormitory where I helped her unpack. Conveniently,
the bed next to mine was unused so I suggested she take it. We stashed
her few belongings in the chipped, wooden dresser between our beds.
At her suggestion, I moved my things to the bottom drawer so she could
use the top one.
Sitting on the bed, whose springs cradled the thin mattress in a sagging
embrace, we compared notes about ourselves. I learned that she was in
the fifth grade and I decided to make sure that she sat at a desk near
me. Perhaps, she would talk back to the nuns or do something else even
As the months rolled by, I stuck to her side, ran errands for her and
carried her books. For her part, she quickly dispatched with the playground
bullies who had previously made me their favorite target. She was funny
and quick and not afraid of anyone and I thrived in the circle of her
On that particular Sunday we sat on the playground swings lazily gliding
back and forth in the warm afternoon sun. I was deep into a fantasy
about Robin Hood, with myself as Maid Marion, when I felt Elizabeth
nudge me with her foot.
"Hey, look at that!" My eyes followed her pointing finger to the fire
escape at the side of the brick building in which we lived and attended
school. It wasn't a regular fire escape with stairs, but a circular
slide type used on some buildings in the Midwest. Fully encased in a
round silver structure, it resembled a castle tower four stories high.
At each floor an iron platform led to a door on the side of the red,
brick building and firmly anchored the tower in place. I knew immediately
that she wanted to play in there and I began to tremble with fear and
"We can't play there Elizabeth, it's forbidden." I looked at her hoping
that she would change her mind, yet knowing full well that she would
"Oh Mary, you're such a chicken. Come on, let's go look inside."
"Better a live chicken than a dead duck, is what I always say," I muttered.
With reluctant excitement I followed her over to the two huge metal
doors that served as the exit of the fire escape. The heavy doors screeched
as Elizabeth pulled them open. Jumping onto the edge of the circular
slide, she lay back and peered upward.
"Helloooo." She called.
"Helloooo." A spooky echo rebounded from the dark recess above. I peeked
in at the innards of the tower. In the center, a metal pole disappeared
upward into the darkened heights. Layered sheets of metal, riveted to
the central pole on one side and the walls on the other side of the
structure, formed a smooth, shiny surface that curved up and around
the central mast. Along the outer edges of the slide, the walls were
dark and rough. Elizabeth kicked off her shoes and socks, braced her
hands on the pole and the rough wall, and, with her feet wide to the
width of the slide, began climbing upward into the darkness. I glanced
around nervously. Seeing no one, I kicked off my shoes and socks and
jumped up onto the slide and pulled my bare feet in after me. Positioning
myself as I had seen Elizabeth do, I began to climb. When I had gone
a few feet and around the pole, the darkness engulfed me. My heart pounded
but, not wanting Elizabeth to laugh at me, I kept going. Suddenly, I
was flooded in light.
"What happened?" I yelled, halting my upward advance and waiting.
"Hey Mary, I'm at the second floor and...I opened...the doors." I could
hear her taking deep breaths as she called out. "You okay down there?
Not scared are you?"
"Naw, not scared," I panted, "Be right there."
By the time I rounded a bend and climbed onto the platform to rest,
Elizabeth was already continuing upward and I soon followed. She opened
the doors at each level to light my way, and finally I emerged at the
top floor and crawled onto the platform beside her. Breathing hard we
grinned at each other. Without a word we giggled, then pulling our skirts
tight around our bottoms, we launched ourselves onto the slide. Swirling
down the dark eddy, round and round in exhilaration, our shouts of glee
echoed to the accompaniment of the thumping sound we made as we passed
over the seams of the layered metal. Light from the doorways of the
landings at each floor flashed by as we picked up speed and, with a
final whoosh, we shot out the exit at the bottom, landing in the sand
piled there to break our fall. Jumping to our feet, we raced back to
the doors and began again the ascent of out tower of delight.
We climbed and slid for hours, our gleeful cries echoing for all to
hear. Our joy evaporated when our flying bodies landed in the sand one
last time and we were faced with the angry eyes of Sister Mary Kyran
towering over us. She was clad in a black shroud, her face glowed red
from within the frame of her white collar and wimple, wrapped so tightly
that it dug into her flesh. She fingered her crucifix with one hand
while, with the other, she methodically tapped a switch against her
habit. The switch was the newly cut and striped green branch of a nearby
"Girls! Girls! You know you are forbidden to play here." Her voice clothed
us in a cloud of doom. My eyes could not leave that awful face that
by now was deepening from red to purple.
"Mary Margaret," she bellowed, "how long have you been playing here?"
In a barely audible voice I managed, "All afternoon, Sister." I lowered
my eyes and shivered as I watched her cut the air with the switch in
her hand. Back and forth it swished, paralyzing me.
"And you Elizabeth, have you been playing here all afternoon too?"
"Oh no sister," Elizabeth replied in her most saintly voice, "I only
slid down two times." My mouth fell open in amazement as Sister Kyran's
switch flashed out and caught Elizabeth across her bare legs with two
quick slashes. Elizabeth drew in her breath sharply but she made no
My tormentor said
in a low brittle voice, "Turn around Mary Margaret."
With dread, I turned and braced my hands against the edge of the tower.
As the blows cut into my calves I clenched my jaw. Following Elizabeth's
lead I made no sound. However, nothing could stop the tears from raining
down upon the slick surface of the slide before me. At last, I felt
Elizabeth's arm around my shoulders.
"She's gone now, Mary. You done good but you gotta learn not to tell
them the truth. They'll only get you for it." Her blue eyes were wet
I sniffled and wiped away my tears with the hem of my dress. In my heart
I knew she was right. Next time I vowed I would lie. An uneasy vision
of me, whooping with delight, as I flew down a giant silver slide to
the hell fire below, did not soften my resolve.
As we walked back to the playground swings, I hugged myself against
the cool of the late afternoon shadows.