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 oldthe first time he traveled to Indonesia on one of Papas business trips. Right now, we are hiking near his home. Hes 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. Youll see," he says, picking up momentum on the trail. "I feel like running because its down hill," he shouts back to me. Slowing, he says, "Look at all these daisy-type things." Hes pointing to the hillside dotted with small yellow and lavender flowers. "Thats 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 dont 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 Im told, and he places a leaf in my mouth. "Chew it," he says. "Its Miners Lettuce." Opening my eyes, I see the plant hes fed me, tiny white flowers, poking from fleshy leaves on blushing stems. I chew the pungent leaf as he takes off. "Theres so much of itlots of miners could have lived here," he says, laughing. Hes at ease with adults, joking, chatting, charming.
"Are there places at Fern Cave to sit, so we can draw?" I ask.
"No. Well 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 woodan 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 hasnt 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 refugeeseyes 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: Stasiua 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. Weve reached the bottom of the hill behind his home. Papa and Mama own eight acres in the foothills east of Californias Central Valley. The house sits on the crest of one of these hills; the warehouse for Papas business is near the propertys 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 lifehome birth, home school, homegrown food and home-based businessa 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 one time, Papa and I found a bear skull. We didnt 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 Augusts 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 cant read," he states matter-of-factly, but that doesnt prevent him from gleaning the information he wants from the book, a 1960s 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 Goyas The Third of May, 1808, a grisly execution scene in one of Papas art books. Two musty illustrated booksone with detailed Civil War scenes, the other with murky black and white World War II photosengage 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.
Weve 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. "Thats 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. Thats 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 toowith 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 Johnsons, but I dont know when that will be. Anna Mae is in the play too, and maybe Gianna."
Augusts playmates are the Johnson girlsa family from church who share many of Mamas and Papas ideas about family life home-centered, country living strongly seasoned with Catholic tradition. Papas businessthe design, production, and sale of womens appareladds a cosmopolitan twist with lots of technologycomputers, 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. "Its this way." He takes a trail off to the left across the ridge of the hill weve just climbed. "Its where Papa and I found deer bones. We saw mountain lion poop and jaw bonesa 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. "Im 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 thats 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. Augusts education began the day he was born when Papa, holding him, described how to fix a broken water pipethe one that busted hours after his birth. Papa read Robert Louis Stevensons 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 Rodins 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 mans really defiant. He doesnt want to go." Such words work their way into Augusts vocabulary.
"Im starting a rescue dog business," he says as we backtrack from Dead Deer Gulch. "Im 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 wont work. Codys 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 dont go. But thats OK. We can still get there this way." His mixed-up syntax isnt 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 didnt see it again when Papa came home from Bali."
"But you saw it once?" I ask.
"If I didnt 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. Hes squatting on his haunches, scooting along and slowing his descent by holding to the plants.
"Ill 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. "Its 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.
Were 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 smellcertainly full of the mystery that might pester a little boys fancy.
"Papa says dont go in there cuz it could cave down," August warns while pulling his boat from his backpack. Papas advice seems to have mutated the tunnel I see to a cave in Augusts surging vocabulary.
"Does Mama ever come to Fern Cave," I ask, hoping hell 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. Hes 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 cavethe 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 Duplosthe only toys in their house. August would reenact Papas 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 dont 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 carsprojects he works on for days at a time. He cuts, tears, arranges, and fastens, describing his work to anyone nearbyMama, 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 Papas entrepreneurial inclinationsfor 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 boats passage.
"Sure," I say, getting up to help. He walks along tugging the boats 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 Mamas lap. His feet seemed to always land too near the babys 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. Were going to Kid-dot-com. Its in Africa" he told her.
The stream is low, so boating quickly loses favor. "Lets 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 commentaryhis 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, "Im 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 its 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."
"Because Im writing a story about you?" I say.
"Why are you writing about me?"
"Because I think youre interesting," I say. He looks out at a crop of granite rocks and resumes his drawing. He is indeed a fascinating childa study in the fruits of what one poet called the cybernetic forestwhere deer stroll peacefully past computers as if they were flowers. He is a child of the year 2000a 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.
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