Letter sent to Madeleine L'Engle from editor James Henle in regards to her story, "Summer Camp" | The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L'Engle (Grand Central Publishing/Crosswicks)

Read Madeleine L'Engle's "Summer Camp," which kickstarted the "A Wrinkle in Time" author's career

An early story brought L'Engle to the attention of the editor who then published her first novel "The Small Rain"



Madeleine L'Engle
April 21, 2020 9:00PM (UTC)

From "The Moment of Tenderness" by Madeleine L’Engle. Copyright © 2020 by Crosswicks, Ltd. and reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

The ground near the pond was hard and damp and Lise lay flat on it, pressing her nose against it until the patterns of grass and twigs were printed across her face and her tears were mixed with the wetness left from the morning's rain. Hard bits   of stubble pricked through her middy and bloomers and jabbed into her, but she pressed against the ground even more closely, welcoming the pain, digging her toes into little tufts of grass    and pushing, trying to concentrate her misery into physical discomfort.

"Oh, God," she whispered. "Oh, God." And then quickly she  sat up, staring defiantly at the sky, and said, "Damn." And then, "Damn it to hell."  She held her face up and waited, looking at  one grey cloud floating just above her head. But it floated past her and nothing happened. She flung herself down again and began  to cry loudly, angrily, gasping. "Oh, God, why didn't you strike me down? Why didn't you strike me down?"

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Then suddenly she became conscious of someone near her,   and she stiffened, holding her breath, checking her sobs by pressing her face even harder into the ground. Someone was standing beside her, watching her misery. She lay perfectly still, desperately trying to become invisible in the short stubbly grass. "Go away," she whispered. "Go away."

"Lise."

"Go away," she said savagely into the ground.  "Go  away,  damn you."

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"I don't mind if you swear," the voice said. Lise was not sure who it belonged to but she did not want it there.  She wriggled a few inches nearer the pond and stretched her arm out so she could dabble her fingertips carelessly in the water.

"I'm watching a tadpole turn into a frog," she said.

"That's very interesting, isn't it?" The voice was light. "I'd rather they stayed tadpoles, though."

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"Would you?" Lise asked. "I like the frogs." She rolled over and sat up and saw that the voice belonged to one of the counselors, a counselor nobody liked. "Hello, Miss Benson," she said politely, trying to pretend that her face was not covered  with tears, covered with bits of grass and lines where twigs had pressed against it.

"You can call me Sunset, if you want to," the counselor said. "I'm not ashamed of having red hair." Her thin young face was suddenly hard and unhappy.

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"I don't call you Sunset," Lise said.

"I wouldn't mind if you did. I think sunsets are pretty. Do you know that I came down to the frog pond just now for the same reason you did? Because I wanted to cry?"

"Did you?" Lise looked at her with interest, then added softly, "I'm sorry."

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"Don't be," Sunset said. "It's good to have something to cry about sometimes. That's how you grow." She sat down beside Lise at the edge of the pond and put her hand in the water, swishing it back and forth. Lise watched it, a long, knobby white hand, the back covered with fine red hairs, the nails cut off short and a little dirty. Sunset followed Lise's glance and said quickly, "I know my nails are dirty. I've been digging. Up on the mountain. I've been digging Indian pipes and planting them in a shoe box. I suppose they'll die, though."

"Maybe they won't." Lise kept on watching the thin, unshapely hand. Then she asked a little timidly, "What happens when you swear?"

"Nothing. Sometimes it makes me feel better. Not often. Not unless I can really shout."

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"Oh. I thought maybe if I swore, God would strike me down."

"No," Sunset answered sadly. "It doesn't work that way. It's too bad, isn't it. But sometimes it does help if you shout. Would you like to try it?"

"All right."

Sunset scrambled up, her long, top-heavy body looking grotesque on her short legs. Lise stared at the legs sticking bare out of a tight skirt. Like the hands, they were  white and covered with fine red hairs. She felt a little sick and jumped up quickly.

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"Let's stand over here, on this rock." Sunset took the child's hand and led her over to a flat gray rock at the end of the pool farthest from the camp. Lise jerked her hand away quickly, then slowly put it back.

"You don't have to if you don't want to," the counselor said.

"I do," Lise whispered, and climbed onto the rock, clutching the thin white hand.

"Now!" Sunset climbed up beside her and stood with her feet apart. "We put our hands on our hips and throw back our heads and shout 'damn' three times as loudly as we can."

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"All right." Lise put her hands on her hips and glared up at   the sky.

"When I say 'one, two, three, go,' we scream," Sunset said. "All right."

"One—two—three—go!"

Lise threw back her head and shouted, "Damn! Damn! Damn!" at the top of her lungs with Sunset.

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"There!" The counselor took Lise's hand again and pulled her down off the rock. "Don't you feel better?"

"I guess so."

"And see here. I'd rather you didn't tell Mrs. Hedges, if you don't mind."

"All right."

"Even if I am leaving tomorrow I—I'd just rather you didn't."

 "All right. But why are you leaving tomorrow?" Lise stared up into Sunset's unhappy, defiant face.

"I handed in my resignation half an hour ago," Sunset answered, "because if I hadn't I'd have been asked to leave in very short order anyhow. I don't seem to have the knack of making you children pay any attention to anything I say. As a nature counselor I guess I'm worth exactly nothing."

"I pay attention to what you say."

"You're different."

"I don't want to be different!" Lise said furiously, digging her fingers into the ground.

Sunset looked at her sharply. "It was meant to be a compliment. I shouldn't have been talking to you like this if you weren't."

"Oh."

"You won't tell the other kids about this?"

 "Of course not."

Sunset looked at the child again, and then began pulling out  the short blades of grass, saying lightly, "Now I've told you why I came down to howl, you ought to tell me about you."

"Ought I?" Lise began pulling up grass, too, laying the separate short strands across the toe of her sneaker.

"It's only fair, isn't it?"

"I—I guess so. It was only that Franny Morrison and I were the only new girls in our tent and she's always been my best friend and none of the other girls like me so she doesn't anymore, either."

"And that was why you  were crying?"

"Yes, and because everyone was mad at me because I lost the race for our tent because I can't run fast."

"You have a bad knee, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Then it's not your fault you can't run fast."

 "They were mad anyway."

"And do you still like Franny?"

 "Oh, yes."

"Why?"

"I don't know. I just do."

"Then why don't you get her aside sometime and have a talk with her? Or write her a letter? If she's worth having as a friend she'll snap out of it."

"Maybe I will."

"Good girl. You'd better run along now. It's almost supper time and someone will be out looking for you if you don't get on back to the tent."

"Yes," Lise said. "Are you coming?"

"No. I think I'll stay and have my howl. You run along."

"All right." Lise started off, then turned back. "I'm sorry you're going."

Sunset looked at her, then back at the frog pond. "Thank you." Lise went back to the tent quickly, pausing for a moment to splash cold water on her flushed face at the wash basins. The others were sitting on the floor of the tent, playing jacks. They didn't look up or speak to her, so she sat on her cot quietly, rubbing the palm of her hand nervously over the rough grey of the army blanket and watching Franny. And she knew that she couldn't speak to Franny. She couldn't go up to her while the others were around—and the others were always around. Everything that was wrong was because of the others. So perhaps she would write. Sunset had suggested that she write a letter and Sunset was a counselor. Perhaps if she wrote Franny a letter asking her why she was so horrid, perhaps then things would be all right again. She stood up and pulled down her writing pad and a pencil from her shelf, sat down on the edge of the bed again, and started writing.

"Who are you writing to?" Franny asked suddenly.

"Mother."

"You wrote your mother yesterday."

"I can write her again, can't I?"

"Oh, sure, if you want to. I suppose you're homesick again."

 "No."

"Then what are you writing her for?"

"Because I want to. She's my own mother, isn't she?"

"Oh, sure, I suppose so. I never heard otherwise."

"Come on, Franny, it's your turn," Bobby Biggs said impatiently. "Leave baby alone."

Lise watched Franny turn back to the game, bit her lip hard, and went  on writing. She sat there until the others had run off to get in line for supper, not waiting for her; then she folded the letter, wrote "Frances Morrison, Private" on it, put it under Franny's pillow, and ran off to join the supper line.

Down by the wash basins that night she brushed her teeth, light at heart. She had not felt as happy as she felt now since before she had come to camp, since the days when she and Franny had made plans together about the wonderful time they would have that summer. So Lise brushed her teeth and thought about Franny, who had already finished her washing and was back in the tent. Perhaps right now, while Lise was spreading a second long white squirl of toothpaste on her brush, Franny was reading the letter, and maybe when she went back to the tent they would smile at each other, and just start talking the way they used to, and she wouldn't be left out anymore.

She walked slowly on her way back to the tent; she must give Franny plenty of time to read the letter. And because she wanted to run back she made herself walk even more slowly, holding off the pleasure she wanted so terribly, tasting every moment of the anticipation. The air was cold and crisp and it slipped through her flannel bathrobe and made her shiver, but the needles of the pine trees looked warm where they brushed against the sky and the stars were just beginning to come. If only there were someone to walk with, it would be such a beautiful place. When you were alone you were too small and it was frightening. Maybe after this Franny would walk with her again.

She couldn't hold herself off any longer and she broke into a run, reaching the tent, panting. She jumped into bed without a word  and then looked over  at Franny in the next bed. Franny  was sitting up in bed with a bright red woolen sweater over her pajamas, reading the letter by her flashlight. She was smiling a very little smile, and Lise's heart bounded with hope. She stared over at Franny, her mouth a little open, breathing quickly. Suddenly Franny turned to her and said, "Why did you lie to me this afternoon?"

Lise felt everyone in the tent looking at her. "What do you mean?" she asked breathlessly.

"You said you were writing to your mother this afternoon, didn't you?"

"I—I guess so." Lise clutched the edge of her cot tightly.

"You did. But you weren't, were you?"

"No."

"You were writing to me, weren't you?"

"Yes."

"Listen, kids," Franny cried, "I got a letter from Lise. Lise wrote me a letter."

"Please, Franny . . . " Lise tried to whisper, but Franny didn't hear.

"Read it to us, Franny, read it to us!" Bobby Biggs shouted gleefully.

Franny held her flashlight close to the letter. "It begins, 'Darling Franny,' " she announced.

Lise scrambled out of bed and hung herself on Franny. "Give me my letter—"

Franny jerked away. "'Darling Franny, why don't you like me anymore . . . '"

"Give me my letter," Lise screamed. "Give it to me, give it to me—"

Franny jumped out of bed, choking with laughter, and ran over to the other side of the tent.

"'We've always been such good friends . . . '"

Lise rushed at her. "Stop it, Franny! Give  it to me! Give it     to me!"

Bobby Biggs and two of the other girls held her, and she kept on screaming, avoiding the hands they tried to clamp over her mouth, screaming to drown Franny out. "Stop it, Franny! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!"

"What's all this noise?"

Franny stopped reading suddenly and Bobby and the others let Lise go and turned around. Mrs. Hedges was standing at the front of the tent, pointing a flashlight at them.

"I want my letter, I want my letter," Lise sobbed as the others climbed quickly into bed.

"What letter, Lise?" Mrs. Hedges asked.

"Here, baby," Franny said quickly, and shoved the letter into Lise's hand. Lise clutched it to her and got into bed slowly.

"I don't want to hear another sound out of any of you tonight," Mrs. Hedges said. "Stop crying, Lise. Control yourself, child."

Lise pressed her hand tightly against her mouth to keep her lips from trembling and shut her eyes tightly.

"Now good night." Mrs. Hedges switched her flashlight out. "If there's any more disturbance from this tent for the rest of the week, not one of you will be allowed to go to the picnic on the  big lake on Sunday. Remember that."

"Oh, we'll be good," Franny promised,  and  the  others echoed her.

"Oh, we'll be good, Mrs. Hedges. Honestly we will. Good night, Mrs. Hedges."

"Good night," Mrs. Hedges said, and strode away.

Sunset was just finishing packing her little car and was ready to leave when Lise's tent came up from archery the next morning. Now that she was going they all crowded her, curious, shameless.

"Are you going, Miss Benson?"

"Oh, we'll miss you, Miss Benson."

"Oh, Miss Benson, why are you going?"

"Goodbye, Miss Benson."

They seemed to take a malicious pleasure in accentuating the "Miss Benson." Sunset turned from stowing her box of Indian pipes in a safe place in the back of the car and looked at them with a half-smile.

"Goodbye," she said, holding her hand out to Bobby Biggs, who was nearest her.

"Goodbye," Bobby said, and put her hand behind her back. Sunset's smile disappeared for a moment. Then she turned to Lise. "Goodbye, Lise." Lise looked hostilely at the outstretched hand, white and bony and covered with fine red hairs on the back. "Goodbye," she murmured, and turned away. She walked over to a pine tree and leaned against it, watching Sunset climb  quickly  into  the car, not saying another word, not waving. The others waved for a moment, then ran back to the tent, while Lise stood still, leaning against the tree, and watched the car disappear. 


Madeleine L'Engle

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