A Short, Short Story Inspired by ElsBeth
Cecelia and Sun Tzu †
A drab drizzle unwelcomed Cecelia when she awoke to another day of sixth grade. To strike back at a doom that seemed to stretch to next June, she snatched up her gay new tartan beret before she’d even gotten to the bathroom to brush her teeth—hopeful that a bright nonchalance was her best attack on a future that included Ms. Hallsworthy at 8:15 roll call. “I shall defend the erosion of vibrancy,” she declared to her teacher’s looming presence, as she seized an umbrella in the stand by the door. But she set it back to heed the call to breakfast for necessary fortification, and she marshaled her lengthening thoughts for a more strategic campaign, while gnashing molars ground her oatmeal to gruel. Her beret, a soldier’s cap, her flag—also to shield her glasses from a rain intent on dimming her vision—she stepped outside and closed the door on a fast-fading courage.
I am not alone, she told herself, although the lie was instantly exposed. “How nice of you to join us this fine morning, Cecelia,” Ms. Hallsworthy hummed, like the hive queen expectant to dine on the sacrificial offerings of her students. “Not such a fine day, really, Ms. Hallsworthy, don’t you think?” Cecelia winced, even before she’d fully let fly her poor dart.
Sun Tzu’s voice, as she imagined it from the glorious pages of The Art of War, which she nursed nightly like a cup of hot cocoa at her bedside table, resounded: “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.” How she had failed her hero in the very first confrontation of her new campaign. She steeled herself to receive the coming blows. Ms. Hallsworthy banked a dark fire. She smoldered and poison vapors leaked through narrowed eyes. But her words were almost soft, almost a comfort. “We need to make the best of what we have.” Had Ms. Hallsworthy been reading Sun Tzu? Was that possible? Had she somehow judged this was not a time for outright battle? With as little licking of wounds as possible, Cecelia made a tactical withdrawal and opened her math book. “Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance,” whispered Sun Tzu. I am not alone, she repeated, with more truth. Head down, eyes averted, Cecelia basked in the concept of ratios. But one thing about school never failed to boil her blood. And after a long slow simmer she’d reduced this to a simple pudding: How am I supposed to know something if I can't imagine it? This was her way of finding no sense at all in having to sit still all day (in the vigor of her youth!), being told things she was then supposed to “know”— without ever being asked to imagine how these things could have anything to do with her life! Without seeing how they could have anything to do with her life, she had reasoned, how could they have anything to do with her life? But because she felt there was something to know, she’d sought guidance that had encouraged her see what was true for her. And while she didn’t understand all she had read, she knew what she knew. Which, apparently, did not yet include enough to choose her battles wisely, at least with Ms. Hallsworthy. Ms. Hallsworthy … Sun Tzu spoke again: “The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.” Ms. Hallsworthy … Then an odd, new thought turned and tumbled. Ms. Hallsworthy was … not the enemy. “I am not alone, and Ms. Hallsworthy is not the enemy.” Cecelia looked up. Still math class, still Ms. Hallsworthy. But all was not quite the same. Cecelia looked for the dark fire that had lit all she’d foreseen and feared for her sixth year of school.
“Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness,” Sun Tzu said. “Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of your opponent’s fate.” Quiet, still, and detached, Cecelia looked closer. She saw something. But now a failing ember, not the fearful flame that had beaconed from Ms. Hallsworthy.
And, without an enemy for fuel, the fire consumed itself. As she watched, its last heat, its last light, lifted free, and was gone.
Sun Tzu said: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Perhaps, Cecelia thought, this was the only way it could be done.