Meeting Lila

“The world can only be changed by people who don’t like it,” wrote Bertolt Brecht in explaining why radicals have a negative attitude about the society we live in. We don’t like the way things are. Sometimes our dislike can even become loathing.

It was in just such a fit of loathing that the idea for my new novel, Lila, the Revolutionary, came to me. I was appalled by how capitalism has become so pervasive and aggressive, a globalized madness. In despair, I saw all these predatory men and women in dark suits commanding us, marching us resolutely towards war and poverty. They’re so powerful and blind…and they’re everywhere. What’s the way out of this? How can we overthrow this murderous system? Then a phrase from the Bible came to me: “A little child shall lead them.”

The idea of a child leading a revolution was so farfetched that I knew there must be something to it. After all, we adults haven’t managed it so well. But I wondered, What kind of a child could lead a revolution? A little girl popped into my mind and said, “Me!” What’s your name? I asked her. “Lila.” How old are you? “I’m eight.” How are you going to lead the revolution? “I’ll tell you about it.” And she did.

Lila turned out to be smart, charming, and tough as can be. No one ever told her she couldn’t end poverty and inequality, so she didn’t doubt that she could Just Do It! Starting with the Nike shoe factory where she worked. Like the boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Lila saw the reality that adults were blind to. And she wasn’t shy about pointing it out. This got her into trouble, of course, but that didn’t stop her.

Like the “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” her story is more of a fable than literal realism. It’s not entertainment for children but a call to action for adults. Lila convinces us that if she can do it, so can we. Yes, she tells us, a better world is possible, and we’re the ones to create it.

Here’s how her story opens:

Lila reached up and scratched the cow’s forehead the way she liked it, then stroked her cinnamon fur smooth. Their four brown eyes met in wordless communication. Lila was smiling and she thought the cow was smiling too. Cows smile differently from people; you can’t see it so much as feel it. The way the cow gazed at her and swung her tail told Lila she was happy. When Lila poured the bucket of oats into the manger of her stall, she got even happier. Her nostrils widened and she snorted and stamped the ground with her hoof. Her long pink tongue licked at the groats, and her beige lips plunged into them. She hummed deep in her throat.

While the cow was eating, Lila set the empty bucket under the water pump. She pressed with both hands as hard as she could on the pump handle. The pipe coughed and gurgled, then splashed water into the bucket, smelling of iron and earth. She poured this and three more loads into the water trough, put the bucket away, and picked up the scoop next to the bag of chicken feed. She thrust the scoop deep into the seeds and grains but then poured some back as she remembered her mother saying, “Don’t give them too much.” With the scoop half full she walked out of the cow shed and over to the chicken coop, whistling to them through her chipped tooth. The birds ran clucking towards her, some flapping their wings in eagerness. “Breakfast, birdies!” she called and flung the food in a wide arc over them, scattering it far enough so they wouldn’t fight over it. The ducks who’d been floating on the tilapia pond took off and flew the ten meters, landed on the run, and began gobbling and quacking.

Lila squatted, wrapped her arms around her knees, and leaned back on her heels to be on their level to watch them eat. The birds trotted around, eyes glued to the ground, eating as fast and as much as they could. A half scoop wasn’t really enough for six chickens and two ducks, but her mother said they couldn’t afford more and the chickens should work harder to find bugs. The ducks, according to mother, were unwelcome guests. They had just shown up one day at the pond and were eating the fish the family needed. Although their eggs were larger than chicken eggs, they hid them so they were harder to find. Mother told her she should scare them away, but Lila couldn’t do that. She wished she could cluck in duck language and tell them to leave before they ended up in the soup pot. They always had a silly but friendly smile on their faces, but that was probably just the way their bills were shaped. Unlike the cow, they didn’t act particularly happy. They were all business, waddling around and gobbling everything they could. She liked their shiny green and blue feathers and had several in her collection. The chickens looked a bit mean down here at their level. Their beaks were sharp, and they kept nervously darting their heads and stepping in quick jerks as they searched for food. But she knew they weren’t mean. They were chickens and chickens just look that way. She had a lot of their feathers, but they weren’t as special as the ducks’. Their babies were as dear as anything she’d ever seen — dear as kittens. But she didn’t like to think of the two together.

Lila had asked her father once if they could have a cat, but he said the only way they could afford a cat was if they had mice. No mice in the house — no cat. Same with a dog. No robbers — no dog.

Two crows dived out of the sky and began strutting around plucking seeds and cawing to scare away the other birds. Lila ran at them, crying, “Get away, you!” They flapped off on their black wings and settled in the corn field with a few nasty caws. A feather from one of them floated down. Lila picked it up, black glinting blue in the sun, and stuck it in her dark hair. I’ll be the crow girlbut I won’t bully the other birdies.

The seven hectares of land the family owned were planted in corn. Now it wasn’t even as tall as she was, but in the fall when it was taller even than her parents, men would come with a big machine and cut it all down and give them money. The whole family worked to take care of the corn: pulling weeds, pumping water, putting on special chemicals this kind of corn needed. Lila didn’t have to work too much on the corn because she was only eight and still going to school. But her brother was 16 and had just stopped school so he could work more and help the family. Her grandfather owned the farm, but he was old now, so her mother and father did most of the work.

Lila remembered when she was little they grew lots of vegetables and fruit — sold some, ate the rest. But that didn’t bring enough money, so now it was all corn that got sent away to another country for animal feed, and they bought food from the store. They had milk from the cow, though, and fish from the pond, eggs from the chickens, and when a chicken got too old to lay eggs, they had chicken soup. Soon maybe duck soup, but Lila didn’t want to think about that. Maybe if she worked extra hard to find all their eggs, her mother would let the ducks stay.

She walked over to the blossoming fig tree and sat in the swing that hung from the largest limb. She loved to swing and was now big and strong enough to do it by herself. She pulled on the rope with her arms and pushed with her legs, going back and forth higher and higher until it seemed she could fly into the air, over the house and fields, fly like the ducks and crows, much higher than the clumsy chickens. Once she had tried it, jumped off the swing at the highest point, but instead of flying she had fallen and chipped her front tooth. The tooth had already fallen out and grown back once, and she thought it would do that again. She was disappointed when mother told her no, that only happens once. Since then she flew only with her mind, not her body.

“Lila, come in,” father called from the porch of their house. “We need to get ready to go.” Today was a festival, and they were going to ride the bus into the city for music and games in the park.

She dragged her heels on the ground to slow down, then jumped off and ran to the house. Its plaster, once white, was now gray and had crumbled off in places, uncovering the stones beneath. Instead of climbing the steps, she reached her hands up towards her father, who grabbed them and swung her onto the wooden porch, both of them laughing.

Inside, mother was packing a basket of food for the day. “I ironed your special blouse,” mother told her. “It’s in your room.” Lila went into the small room she shared with her brother, who was sitting on her bed, the lower bunk, brushing his shoes to shine them. She took the blouse, which mother had embroidered for her eighth birthday, into the bathroom and put it on. It was pretty but too big. Mother said that was so she could grow into it.

As she came out, father told her, “Go make sure grandpa’s ready. We have to leave or we’ll miss the bus.”

Lila knocked on the door of grandpa’s room at the front of the house. He didn’t answer, so she went in, asking, “Ready to go?” First she noticed a chair lying on the floor, then she saw grandfather swinging slowly back and forth, feet not touching the floor, a rope tied from his neck to a ceiling beam. Lila screamed and ran to him, tried to lift him up from the rope, but she wasn’t strong enough. She cried out again and fell to the floor as her parents rushed in. They both gasped then wailed as they saw the body, now swinging wider from Lila’s attempt to free it. Eyes filled with tears, they held grandpa up away from the rope, but his head sagged limply to the side. “Father!” Lila’s father cried, “Not this! No!”

Her brother stood in the door, eyes wide, mouth gaping. Mother called to him, “Bring a knife, quick!”

Lila’s father was holding on to his father and crying, head against his chest. Mother was holding on to her husband and crying, head against his shoulder. Lila knelt on the floor crying and holding on to her parents’ legs. Grandpa hung above, looking down on them with bulging eyes.

Brother ran in with a knife, and father stood on the chair and cut the rope. Mother and brother held the body and eased it down onto the floor. Lila picked up her grandpa’s hand, then dropped it because it was cold. The cold seemed to creep inside her and freeze something.

Father took a sheet of paper off the desk.

“Did he leave a note?” mother asked.

“No,” father said, “just this.” He showed them a printed letter and read, “Notice of foreclosure of mortgage and order to vacate.”

Mother closed her eyes and her head sank.

“What does that mean?” Lila asked.

“It means we don’t own this farm and house anymore. We have to leave,” father said in a stunned whisper.

“Did somebody take it?” Lila asked.

“The bank took it,” father said. “Grandpa had to borrow money from the bank to buy the special corn seeds. Then he had to borrow more money to buy the chemicals the seeds need to grow and to kill the bugs. Before they loaned him the money, the bank made him sign that they could take the farm and house if he didn’t pay it back. He thought he would be able to pay it back because the seed company said their seeds would produce lots of corn. But they didn’t. They actually produced less than the old kind of seeds. So he didn’t get enough money to pay the bank back. He was trying to get them to wait so he could pay them later. We talked about it…how worried he was, but he hoped they would wait. But now we know they didn’t. Now they own all this…and they want us to go.”

“Can we fight them?” brother asked.

Father shook his head. “They have the police and soldiers on their side.” He put one arm around his son and his hand on his daughter’s head as she sat on the floor. “We didn’t want you to worry about this, so we didn’t tell you.”

Lila looked up at him and asked, “Where will we go?”

“We will have to move into the city, try to find work there.”

Mother cried louder. “We are not city people. The city is brutal.” She sank to her knees beside grandpa. “Why did you do this? You should have stayed with us. We would do better together.”

“He was too ashamed,” father said. “But you’re right, he shouldn’t have done it. I didn’t think he would. But I didn’t think the bank would actually take our farm either. I thought they’d give us a chance.”

“What will they do with it?” brother asked.

“Whatever will bring them the most money,” father said. He reached down and lifted Lila up onto her feet. “I’m sorry you had to find him…a terrible shock to you. Go out and play now.”

“I can’t play,” she said. As father led her out, she looked at grandpa sprawled on the floor. He would never get up from there. That’s what it meant to be dead. She wouldn’t see him again…ever. Where did he go? Did he just fly away? Her tears streamed more and she threw herself on the couch with a wail. Father picked up the telephone and pushed numbers. He said something into the phone, but she was crying too loud to hear. Everything she saw reminded her of grandfather: his favorite chair in the corner, his place at the head of the dinner table, his smiling face in family photos on the wall, his coat hanging by the front door. She ran out the back door, but in the yard she saw the fig tree with her swing, and she remembered him making it for her then pushing her in it, both of them laughing. The rope on the tree reminded her of the rope from the ceiling, and she cried louder. She couldn’t stand it. How could a person not be there anymore?

Something seemed to be closing around her, crushing her, squeezing everything together into a hard little ball. She didn’t want to be that hard little ball. She dropped to the ground and beat with her hands and kicked with her legs. The feather fell out of her hair. Even the hard little ball was being crushed into dust that would blow away. She’d be gone like grandpa. Lila brought her knees up to her chest, clenched her arms around her legs, held herself tightly to keep from disappearing, and said her name over and over: “Lila…Lila….”

William T. Hathaway is an emeritus Fulbright professor of American studies at universities in Germany. His new novel, Lila, the Revolutionary, is a fable for adults about an eight-year-old girl who sparks a world revolution for social justice. Read other articles by William.