Bone from Bear or
Notes on Amy Vanderbilt’s Etiquette
Margaret Patton Chapman

I. Dealing with Strangers

Wood is harder than fruit. Tree, a mote in the eye is not an apple. If you must hit someone one with something aside from fists, consider the consequences. A board may break bones, but a proffered peach can crumble teeth if not pitted. Hit with what you can, watch plum and nectarine explode against bodies. An apple smarts; this is why they are given to teachers.

II. The Child in Society

All boys are interested in girls. This is natural. All girls are only interested in other girls. This is also natural. The best way to get a girl’s interest is to pretend to be a girl. Investigate. Discover what girls wear and how they smell. Use your mother’s or your sister’s soap. It is acceptable to steal clothes from a store if they are girl clothes and you are a boy; no shopkeeper could in good conscience begrudge you this. Listen to girl’s schoolyard chatter and imitate it but say nonsense words like “really, but Suzy trampoline inexhaustible dodging fights. I mean, practical platypus pens in the playhouse”. If you have listened and say it the right way, girls will not be able to tell the difference. Practice being vague and callow. Hold your nose up and wear your stolen clothes. Girls will find you interesting, and if you are lucky, they will want to have a sleep-over with you. As a bonus, boys will find the girl you interesting too.

III. Behavior in Public Places

Sticks are important. Learn to do things with them. Sticks are chemically different than wood and so more like fruit, although all come from trees. Sticks are abundant in woods (also different from wood). Collect sticks of different shapes and sizes. Practice poking things. Poke small things and then bigger things and discover the differences. Record your investigations. Poke girls and boys who are pretending to be girls. See if you can spot the differences. Take your stick collection where-ever you go, in a bundle tied with a belt. This bundle represents your hard work and your own curiosity. People will judge the tidy appearance of this bundle.

IV. The Child in The Family

Parents must be listened to, but they do not have to be obeyed. Fathers are tall and descended from bears and trees; they have hollow voices and hidden powers you can never understand until you are grown. Mothers are a different type of parent than fathers. Their secrets are your secrets; they are made from your bones. You may want to poke your mother with a stick to see if she is really a boy in disguise. If your mother is a boy, that is fine. If your father is a boy, that is also fine. If your mother is a girl, that is fine. If your father is a girl, be careful. A girl who is part bear and part tree can be tricky, especially if she is your father.

V. The Official Side of Life

Things can be known. Investigate differences between fathers and mothers, boys and girls, wood and fruit. Learn by listening; the best way to listen is in a fort. Gather your sticks and throwing fruit and girl clothes and make a little fort in your room. Make the walls of the fort with sticks and the roof with clothes and the floor with apples. Lay on the apple floor and close your eyes. What do the apples say? Nothing. What do the sticks say? Wield me. What do the clothes say? Wear me. What do you hear outside of the fort, out in the other rooms? Motherboys and father-girls hulking with leafy bear limbs; their big bone bodies lumbering down the halls. Listen to the cracks and whooshes of their movements, the swishes and knocks. Listen to the differences in the sounds and learn to tell boy from girl, fruit from wood, bone from bear. You are building an armory of knowledge in your little fort. Keep your knowledge safe. Keep your fists up and your peach pits close.

Margaret Patton Chapman teaches writing at Indiana University South Bend and is fiction editor at decomP magazinE. Her work has been published in Juked, the Collagist, and Diagram among others. She posts here.