(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Mary is a young girl, apparently about eleven years old, who undergoes a small, gentle rite of passage that forces her to take notice of the world of other children and adults. At the beginning of the story, she is a confirmed loner who stays away from other children, preferring to play in her own domain—a clay pit located a mile outside town. By the story’s end, her seclusion sustains her less satisfactorily, and its security appears illusive.

Mary is a “scrupulously clean child” with “well-arranged curls”; her predominant characteristic, made immediately apparent in the story, is that she would like reality to be similarly orderly. She plays alone, because she perceives other children, whose games are noisy and hectic, to be a threat to the world of her imagination. That world is sustained by the clay pit, which Mary imagines is the barracks for a troop of soldiers that she commands. The military life suits her, for just as she cannot bear uncleanliness, she is a stickler for routine.

A mishap disrupts her routine, however, and leads her toward a series of experiences that will submit the world of her clay pit to the influence of the wider world beyond it. While playing in the pit, she slips, gets mud on her coat, and decides that she must wait until dark to go home. She thinks it necessary to concoct for her troops an explanation of why she has remained longer than usual, and tells them that she has decided to give them extra training to make them into a crack “mountain-goat fighting” unit. Despite this ready explanation, the unexpected mishap has worked cracks in her make-believe world. She is certain that her troops will accept her explanation, but she has difficulty accepting the deceit herself.

Other changes in her occur. She experiences new sensations: As night falls, she begins to feel uneasy, like an intruder in her own domain. She skulks home along the darkest streets to hide her dirty coat, somewhat ashamed and apprehensive about the possibility of a reprimand.

At home, her father does reprimand her and tells her to play at the playground like all the other children. The next day, Mary nevertheless returns to her clay pit, jubilant at feeling, for the first time, undaunted by her father’s authority. She prepares her men for battle with the children on the playground. When her father drives by without...

(The entire section is 972 words.)