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Child 2000
 
by Patricia Harrelson
 

August has traveled a lot for a five-year-old: San Francisco, New York, Ottawa. The photo on his passport was taken when he was three months old—the first time he traveled to Indonesia on one of Papa’s business trips. Right now, we are hiking near his home. He’s leading me to Fern Cave, a place he named for the giant chain ferns that grow along a spring-fed drainage.

"You can get lots of rose quartz at Fern Cave. You’ll see," he says, picking up momentum on the trail. "I feel like running because it’s down hill," he shouts back to me. Slowing, he says, "Look at all these daisy-type things." He’s pointing to the hillside dotted with small yellow and lavender flowers. "That’s an herb," he says about a taller plant poking up among the low-growing wildflowers.

"What kind of herb?" I ask.

"I used to know, but I don’t any more," he answers, stopping for a moment to look at the plant. He commands me: "Close your eyes and open your mouth." I do as I’m told, and he places a leaf in my mouth. "Chew it," he says. "It’s Miner’s Lettuce." Opening my eyes, I see the plant he’s fed me, tiny white flowers, poking from fleshy leaves on blushing stems. I chew the pungent leaf as he takes off. "There’s so much of it—lots of miners could have lived here," he says, laughing. He’s at ease with adults, joking, chatting, charming.

"Are there places at Fern Cave to sit, so we can draw?" I ask.

"No. We’ll pick another place for that."

He totes a plaid backpack that Mama sewed to carry his sketch pad, pencils, and water-bottle. Today it also holds a boat he made from scrap wood—an eight-inch piece with two smaller chunks nailed on top. He tacked a fat aluminum staple to one end to tie twine so he can steer his boat. He plans on floating the boat in the creek at Fern Cave.

"There may not be enough water," he says. "Because it hasn’t rained, but I can float it in the deep parts."

Clothing droops and drifts on his small body; faded denim pants slip despite cinching with a braided belt, and his striped smock is coming untucked at the back. His rubber rain boots are on the wrong feet, and his pant legs are scrunched up to his knees by the tops of the boots. He wears a baseball cap to protect his nearly bald head. Papa had to shave his thick auburn hair because of a case of head lice. Brown eyes dominate his elfin head, reminding me of Eastern European refugees—eyes that search.

"Watch out for the poison oak," he warns, pointing to thick clumps along the deer trail we are following. He has shreds of European heritage from his Polish great-grandfather for whom he is named: Stasiu—a diminutive of Stanislaus. His other name is Augustine, for the saint. Some people call him Stasiu, but most call him August.

"That trail goes to the warehouse," he says, pointing at a narrow track. We’ve reached the bottom of the hill behind his home. Papa and Mama own eight acres in the foothills east of California’s Central Valley. The house sits on the crest of one of these hills; the warehouse for Papa’s business is near the property’s access road to accommodate UPS deliveries. Their land is fairly remote, tucked away from customary life on undulating hills and drainage folds that are thickly wooded with live oak and chaparral.

When Mama and Papa got married they dreamed of a home-centered life—home birth, home school, homegrown food and home-based business—a 1990s alternative life-style with echoes of Little House on the Prairie. They purchased the parcel of land, and Papa built the warehouse from which he conducts his business; they fenced an immense garden and planted fruit trees, and last fall, August began kindergarten at home with Mama as his teacher. August and his sisters were born at home; Anna Mae is three, and Gianna was born a few days ago. Mama and the girls are napping while we walk in woods that are crisscrossed with deer trails.

"That must be the long way to the warehouse," I say.

"Yes, it is. I like to go that way so I can see things," says August

"Like what?"

"Like one time, Papa and I found a bear skull. We didn’t know it was a bear skull. Not until we looked in the animal book."

I know this book, The Big Game Animals of North America, a book larger than August’s lap where it rests awkwardly when he studies black-line drawings of skulls, animal tracks, and illustrations. The text, written by the editor of Outdoor Life magazine, is printed in fat columns across the page. "I can’t read," he states matter-of-factly, but that doesn’t prevent him from gleaning the information he wants from the book, a 1960’s vintage that Mama bought at a yard sale. Books are both practical and entertaining for August. Since there is no TV in his home, books are where he finds the war and gore that so often fascinate little boys. He lingers at Goya’s The Third of May, 1808, a grisly execution scene in one of Papa’s art books. Two musty illustrated books—one with detailed Civil War scenes, the other with murky black and white World War II photos—engage his imagination and his mouth, prompting endless questions and speculation about bad guys, killing, and death.

"Do you know what?" he says as he splashes across the creek. "The skull had stuff hanging on it, and a wasp came out and stung me."

"I bet that hurt," I say.

"Yes. And do you know what? Papa picked it up and brought it home, and he nailed it to the shed."

A motley collection of bones and antlers is nailed to the woodshed. "You guys find lots of bones out here."

"Ben brings home carcasses," says August. Ben is their lumbering dog, a Chow/Shepherd mix, a stray who showed up one day, scared away the cats and never left. He often joins August for his walks, but today he merely rose from the little burrow he has dug by the garden fence and watched us walk down the hill. I guess he decided I was reliable company for August.

We’ve crossed one drainage, a trickling stream edged with brilliant, green moss, and are nearing the top of the next hill. Trails branch and intersect through the dense brush, and August hikes with the certainty of the deer and raccoon who made these paths, choosing his way without comment, clear about his destination and the way to get there. Like the criss-crossing trails, his talk forks and converges, linking landscape with the tracks in his mind.

"The top of this mountain is half-way and a quarter there," he informs me. "See the clover," he says pointing to a grassy plot amidst the brush. "That’s what Saint Patrick lifted over his head." He ducks under the red branches of a Manzanita bush to pluck a clover. Presenting the leaf to me, he says, "this is like the blessed Trinity. That’s what Saint Patrick said."

"Has Mama been reading about St. Patrick?" I say. Each month, Mama constructs a calendar for the family and marks the holy days, birthdays, and other important occasions with pictures and drawings. Saints’ days are noted too—with pictures photocopied from her book, Lives of the Saints for Every Day of the Year. She reads the stories from this book to August.

"Yes, and do you know what? Rosie and Annie and me, we made a play about him. Do you want to come to it?"

"When are you doing the play?" I ask.

"Not for a while. The next time we go to the Johnson’s, but I don’t know when that will be. Anna Mae is in the play too, and maybe Gianna."

August’s playmates are the Johnson girls—a family from church who share many of Mama’s and Papa’s ideas about family life— home-centered, country living strongly seasoned with Catholic tradition. Papa’s business—the design, production, and sale of women’s apparel—adds a cosmopolitan twist with lots of technology—computers, the Internet, fax machines, and jet planes. August has soaked up the world that surrounds him, resulting in a hybrid child who entertains me today.

"I want to show you Dead Deer Gulch," he says. "It’s this way." He takes a trail off to the left across the ridge of the hill we’ve just climbed. "It’s where Papa and I found deer bones. We saw mountain lion poop and jaw bones—a big set and a little set. Maybe from a fawn and its mama."

"Do you worry about mountain lions?" I ask.

"No, but Mama does," he says. "I’m afraid of a black dog I see sometimes."

When we reach an open, sunny space, August says, "This is where we found the bones." Then he squats, pointing into a thicket. "We think that’s where they lived," he says.

I know the "we" he speaks of is himself and Papa. With untempered pleasure, Papa schools August on the mundane and the imaginative. August’s education began the day he was born when Papa, holding him, described how to fix a broken water pipe—the one that busted hours after his birth. Papa read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island when August was three. They have visited fire stations and the recylcing center; they rode a Quick Cat in the coral reefs of Indonesia and took Amtrak to Los Angeles to visit the La Brea Tar Pits. When August was four, the family went to the Metropolitan Museum while in New York City. They spent an hour with Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais. August sat still as a fawn while Papa told about the six men who surrendered their lives for their city, describing how each man approached his death. Papa sandwiched grown up words between child-size ones, saying "That man’s really defiant. He doesn’t want to go." Such words work their way into August’s vocabulary.

"I’m starting a rescue dog business," he says as we backtrack from Dead Deer Gulch. "I’m going to ask Cody if he can bring his dogs."

Cody is a cousin who has three dogs. "What will you rescue?" I ask.

"People who get lost." He is quiet for a time, before saying, "I was thinking maybe that won’t work. Cody’s dogs are defiant. They jump up a lot." Then his thoughts stray in a different direction. "Do you know what? We went where we sometimes don’t go. But that’s OK. We can still get there this way." His mixed-up syntax isn’t akin to faulty navigation, for over his head through the bushes, I spot deep green fronds, and I know his instincts are true.

"One time Papa and I saw a walk ramp across the creek," he says as we near the stream. "That place is lost now. We didn’t see it again when Papa came home from Bali."

"But you saw it once?" I ask.

"If I didn’t see it once, how would I know it was here?" he says, dismissing my question with cheerful conviction. "Look at that crystally stuff," he says as he makes his way down the steep bank while surveying the water below. He’s squatting on his haunches, scooting along and slowing his descent by holding to the plants.

"I’ll look in a minute," I say, copying his descent maneuver.

He reaches a sandy shelf at the bottom and stands to consider a way to cross. "I want to show you the cave. We have to go over there." The creek is a slow, shallow gurgle, but the mossy rocks look slippery. He starts across, stepping on stones, but mostly plopping in the water. His rain boots serve their purpose, keeping his feet dry.

"Do you come to Fern Cave alone?" I ask.

"No," he says. "It’s too far for me come alone." The voice of his parents trickles through this declaration. Their imprint is stamped plainly in him like a footstep pressed in moist sand.

We’re on the other side of the creek now, and he shows me the place where the water plunges down a steeper section of the drainage. A couple of trees have fallen across the creek and collected organic debris, forming a tunnel through which the water falls. The chamber is dark and damp and wafts a vegital smell—certainly full of the mystery that might pester a little boy’s fancy.

"Papa says don’t go in there cuz it could cave down," August warns while pulling his boat from his backpack. Papa’s advice seems to have mutated the tunnel I see to a cave in August’s surging vocabulary.

"Does Mama ever come to Fern Cave," I ask, hoping he’ll say more about his attraction to this lush furrow.

"Yes. One time when Papa was gone, Mama made a picnic, and we came here."

"Anna Mae, too?" I ask.

"Yes," he tells me. He’s launched his boat in a clear pool where I can see the rose quartz he mentioned. I sit behind him, watching the boat drift and realizing that the hike is as important as the cave—the company is what he likes.

When Papa travels, Mama is pressed for more play. She and August used to build airports with chunky red, blue, and yellow Duplos—the only toys in their house. August would reenact Papa’s departures and dramatize his arrivals in distant cities. New experiences are still frequently replayed with Duplo creations. He built monasteries for weeks after visiting his godmother, who is a cloistered nun. He created battlefields after witnessing a Civil War reenactment. He built windowless boxes with intricate maze interiors after driving past a nearby minimum-security prison. "I don’t know what it looks like inside," he told Mama. "I just imagined it."

When he tires of Duplos, he makes things with cardboard, paper, tape and scissors. Discarded boxes and their entrails find their way to him. He fashions computers, Roman soldier garb, and soap-box cars—projects he works on for days at a time. He cuts, tears, arranges, and fastens, describing his work to anyone nearby—Mama, Anna Mae or the UPS delivery man. He is very detailed in his creations, perhaps a trait he has acquired from watching his father design garments. He certainly mimics Papa’s entrepreneurial inclinations—for instance dreaming up the rescue dog business or, yesterday, when he blockaded Gianna, who was lying on the couch, and started selling her smiles for a quarter.

"Could you please move those rocks over there?" he asks, pointing to some obstructions to his boat’s passage.

"Sure," I say, getting up to help. He walks along tugging the boat’s string to lift it over minor hurdles.

August is gentle and playful with this new sister Gianna, but when Anna Mae was born, he struggled to share his Mama’s lap. His feet seemed to always land too near the baby’s head no matter where she rested, and he left crimson fingerprints on her arms and legs. The look on his face betrayed the intention behind these accidents as he called them. These days, he and Anna Mae are solid playmates. Not long ago, I overheard him invite her into a large cardboard box. "Come on Anna Mae. We’re going to Kid-dot-com. It’s in Africa" he told her.

The stream is low, so boating quickly loses favor. "Let’s climb up there and draw," he says, gesturing back up the hill. I help him repack the boat, and we start our climb. He talks little now, and I miss his running commentary—his contorted syntax, leaping associations, and apropos analogies. One evening during the pre-bedtime ritual, he told Mama his teeth felt rusty before brushing. And once when he had a middle ear infection, he declared that he had rattlesnakes in his ears.

We reach the top of the hill, and he tells me, "I’m going to sit up there and draw. Could you hand me my pad after I climb up?" He scales the arc of a fallen tree like a squirrel, then straddles a smooth barkless place. He kicks off the rubber boots as I hand him his sketch pad and pencil. "Thank you," he says. He takes off his cap, handing it to me.

I sit on a nearby log and watch him. Barefoot, head shaved, and focused, he reminds me of miniature desert monk. His silences often precede a weighty thought though I doubt the rattling in his head ever quiets. He once projected his noisy mind onto Anna Mae.

"Mama, do you know Anna Mae is thinking about the devil . . .?"

"How do you know?" Mama asked.

"I can hear it," he said.

"How do you know it’s not in your head?" Mama said.

"Because my head is Catholic," he declared.

I take my pad and pencil from my jacket pocket and begin making some notes.

"What are you writing?" he asks me from his perch on the tree.

"Some of the things you say."

"How come?"

"Because I’m writing a story about you?" I say.

"Why are you writing about me?"

"Because I think you’re interesting," I say. He looks out at a crop of granite rocks and resumes his drawing. He is indeed a fascinating child—a study in the fruits of what one poet called the cybernetic forest—where deer stroll peacefully past computers as if they were flowers. He is a child of the year 2000—a little boy, absorbing modern culture, laced with an old-fashioned tincture that his parents prescribe. He is formative and inventive, earthy and worldly.

“I want to show you another way back," August says when we pack up.

"OK. Lead the way," I tell him. He heads cross-country, ignoring the deer trails.

  

Patricia Harrelson is an English instructor at a small community college. She lives in a rural community in the foothills east of California's Great Central Valley and north of Yosemite. Her essays and poetry have appeared in several newspapers and small literary publications.
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