Deborah La Garbanza – “Fledgling”

RIVER RANCH, MENDOCINO, 1977

A year that began with me crouched in the zucchini patch as Acorn ran Harley off with her shotgun. She pointed it straight up, fired one shot, and Harley went running. He used all the derogatory names for dyke he could think of, but he wasn’t coming back and good riddance. I had my fingers stuck in my ears in that zucchini patch and my face scrunched up. At twenty-two, I had never heard a gun go off. I wasn’t from that kind of place. I could picture Acorn standing at the gate with her legs spread and her eyes squinting into the sun. Harley’s screams seemed to be far off with my ears blocked up, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I had mixed feelings about leaving him, though. He had been pretty decent to me and the puppy hitchhiking across the country. He didn’t have to take me with him, but he did and never once made a move on me.

Acorn found me staring at a zucchini the size of a missile. She took me by the hand and led me past the blackberry bush to her cabin. She said Harley was bad news and I believed her. She said he had been in the joint with her brother Bill.

“Did you know that?” Acorn seemed to know my answer in advance.

I had never known anyone in jail before. Just like I had never seen a gun.

“Harley was coming on to you and it was clear that you weren’t interested,” Acorn said, looking me over like she was measuring me up.

I told her that Harley had never once tried anything on the road but since we got to the Land, he was acting like he owned me. Acorn nodded vigorously. “That’s men for you,” she said.

Harley had said that we were leaving soon, going down to ‘Frisco or Santa Cruz where he had some buddies. That had seemed okay before but now it wasn’t. Still, I had nowhere to go. I was in perpetual motion. The wind blew me like pollen. Acorn looked at me trying to come to some decision. I had been on the Land for two weeks, camping near the river in a little pup tent, but I already understood the grinding of her jaw. She was thinking. She would sit on the rickety porch outside her cabin on a low stool and roll a smoke. She would flick the bits of tobacco off her front tooth and spit them towards the blackberry bush and think. Sometimes, the decisions to be made were mundane, something having to do with the Land like should she drag the horse manure from the barn to the compost heap, should she let the chickens out, should she haul some firewood in the old double-clutched Chevy truck.

Now, Acorn looked me over from head to toe like she was seeing me for the first time. I stood there in my big corduroy pants from the free box and my flannel shirt and suffered the appraisal. She looked at the circle of my bushy hair and my torn sneakers. The puppy came up behind me and whimpered. I picked her up and she licked my face. Acorn came to a decision.

“You’ll stay here on the Land,” she said.

I thought about my pup tent and how cold I was every night under my thin sleeping bag.

Acorn said, “You’ll stay in my cabin.”

I looked around and felt every muscle go limp. No one had ever chosen me before. Acorn flexed her bicep to emphasize the point. Her tan arms were the strongest I had ever seen especially in her undershirt that was stained with sweat under the armpits.

“I have an extra room in the back,” she said.

She inhaled deeply on the hand-rolled cigarette of Drum tobacco.

I didn’t end up in the back room. As night fell, Acorn chopped wood from her stash on the side of the house, fired up the pot belly stove and lit the kerosene lamps. I shivered near the stove until the heat built up enough for me to back away. Acorn got down the blackened skillet and sautéed veggies from the garden which we ate with brown rice and tofu. Acorn said that salt was bad so we sprinkled Dr. Brownell’s sesame kelp on our food. Sugar was bad too. Blackstrap molasses and honey were the only sweeteners allowed. I was picking up the routine. After dinner, Acorn threw a few more logs in the pot belly stove and cranked up the lamps. The cabin shone. I sat on the floor, on cushions, staring up at her in her armchair. The puppy and Acorn’s cat did the same. All seemed right with the world.

When it came time for bed, Acorn led me up the narrow stairs to her loft. She undressed me like a child, muttering all the while that I was too thin and pale. I felt clammy and sweaty and tried to think of when I had last had a bath, but soon it all started to smell like the Earth when Acorn stripped off her undershirt. I got under the covers and she lay down next to me. She propped herself up on one elbow and seemed to be considering me again.

“You like it here?” she wanted to know.

I said, “Yes.”

Acorn pulled back the covers and started playing with my nipples. I wanted to kiss but Acorn pushed me away from that so I closed my eyes as she made her way down my body. She knew what to do. She licked me into shape. When she got to her final destination, she paused and spread me out.

“Beautiful clit,” she said. “Like a jewel, a pearl, perfect.”

I don’t remember anyone saying anything nice about me. Its novelty made me cry and laugh at the same time.

Acorn stroked me until she got waves going and then buried her face. She stayed down a long time, sliding her hands under my ass so that she could twist and turn my pelvis until my neck arched and my legs fell open even wider. Her tongue went in and out and then her fingers and then her fist rammed as she crouched at my cunt for more leverage. Finally, she came up with face glistening in the sputtering kerosene light.

“Very nice, it smells very nice,” she said.

She mounted my thigh, riding me like her mare with the star in the center of its forehead. I reached up and touched her nipples but she swatted my hand away like I had burned her. She still hadn’t taken off her pants and the denim was rubbing my thigh raw. But I held off from coming until I felt hers. She approached it and backed off like the ebb and flow of the tides. Then it rose up from her lower back, a serpent of pure energy. I could feel its power as it made its way up her spine. Her breath slowed down as the frantic start of her orgasm slowed to a plateau of ecstasy. Then a bolt of white light shot from her forehead making a dent in the astral plane. Next to her roaring explosion, mine felt like a mere twitching. Then she lay inert, dead weight on top of me until I felt like I would suffocate. But I didn’t want to disturb her. Finally, she rolled off and sat up, her head grazing the ceiling of the loft. She pulled out a velvet pouch, rolled us a joint and put it to my mouth. I sat up on my elbows, inhaled and fell back on the mattress. The fire had died down and the cool air dried the sweat on my chest.

Acorn blew out the kerosene lamp and we went to sleep. As the moon rose in the sky, the mice started scampering in the kitchen. Acorn bolted up in bed when the banging started. I burrowed in when I heard Harley screaming outside.

“Goddammit, that bastard is back,” Acorn said, and started to put on her undershirt. “He’s screaming for you.”

“Please go away,” I said weakly to Harley and buried my head under the pillow.

Acorn climbed down from the loft and went to the back room where she kept her shotgun. I could hear her putting on her boots. Harley wouldn’t stop banging. He seemed possessed, running around the cabin, trying to find a way to get in. I curled up in a fetal pose. Harley was screaming how he wanted me to come with him and get away from that dyke.

“Please go away,” I whispered from underneath the covers.

Acorn didn’t make a sound but then I heard the front door swing open on its rusty hinges and felt a great whoosh of sea air blow in. I could imagine her on the rickety porch with her gun pointing, her jaw muscles working. I listened as Harley made his way around to the front of the cabin. I didn’t know if he had a weapon. I couldn’t imagine him coming back without one after the last time. My mind balked at what might happen if he did. Acorn would relish the fight. She wouldn’t let herself be violated even if she had to die to do it. She would take him on with a weapon or with her bare fists. I heard Harley get to the front of the cabin.

“I don’t want to come with you,” I whispered.

“She’s with me,” he said and Acorn laughed.

“Not anymore,” she replied.

“You dyke,” his voice was slurred.

“You’re drunk,” she said. “Get out of here before I hurt you.”

“Not ‘till I take her with me,” he said.

“You want to go back to jail? ‘Cause that is where this is all heading.”

“I want to hear her say it then,” he said.

Acorn turned and called to me. I climbed down from the loft, my knees banging together. I slid along the walls of the cabin until I could peek out the door.

“I want to stay here, Harley, I really do.”

“Dykes,” he snorted and turned away, but not before he heaved a rock through the window.

“I’ll fix it in the morning,” Acorn said.

I lived with Acorn for a few months before I realized that she really had a thing about trees. I guess that was kind of apparent what with her name and everything, but I hadn’t realized how much it meant. It was a religion. Trees were her goddesses. She’d prostrate herself in front of a few special ones on the Land and pray.

“Trees are our ancestors,” she said and I started to believe her.

Then she’d make me lie down with her under the wide canopy of a special tree with the most exposed root system until my back ached.

A logging road ran along the opposite side of the river from the Land. The logging companies were smart enough to leave a fringe of trees along the periphery and gained huge profits from clear cutting the rest. We couldn’t see the logging trucks across the river but the snapping sound of gravel being run over and the roar of the engines were a daily reminder to Acorn, and then to me, of the slaughter of our ancestors. Acorn would go near mad at the sound of the logging trucks. She’d turn towards the river, her face would go pale and the muscles in her jaw would work up and down at a furious rate. I knew not to talk to her then.

Acorn had sized me up as an ectomorph in need of a lot of nurturing. At first, that felt really good. But Acorn was convinced that I could die imminently, on the spot, under her watch, if I didn’t start an intensive vitamin therapy program and a rigorous diet. The diet consisted of soy products and organic produce from the garden. Every morning, Acorn would wake me up with a fistful of vitamins and minerals. I was an accumulation of toxins. Acorn, on the other hand, had declared herself a mesomorph.

“Look at my wide palate,” she’d say if I doubted her.

She’d open her mouth wide and I’d stare up at the roof and marvel at its width. It was truly amazing. My skinny palate suddenly felt inadequate and in need of vitamins. Mesomorph had the further distinction, according to Acorn, of being just like all the indigenous peoples’ body type. She was closer to Mother Earth, closer to the trees, closer to the rich, fertile, juicy, life-giving, affirming goddesses than I was.

“I even bleed on the full moon,” she said.

I, on the other hand, was born in a hated city. Even San Francisco, four hours south, was nowhere good enough. I was far from the ground, anemic and pale.

“Look at my gums, my teeth, my tongue,” Acorn said.

More looking in her mouth. Ruby red, glistening, pulpy tongue that according to Chinese medicine was the right color and texture. Teeth, short and square, like those of a good mare. I was finally stilled by the comparison. The rightness of Acorn, her superiority in body type and years, confirming what I already suspected—I was inferior. I could be nice but only if my blood sugar wasn’t so dangerously low as to make me morose and moody. She would help me survive if I just let her.

One afternoon, we dropped pure acid. I expected a good trip until the knotholes in the lumber that lined the cabin came alive with grimaces and sneers. I hadn’t realized how depressed I’d become living with Acorn. She didn’t see the knotholes changing and told me I was bringing her down. Somehow, that seemed the worst thing that anyone had ever said to me. Mortally wounded, I ran out of the cabin, down the road that followed the river that led to the ocean. It was about a mile but the acid must have been laced with speed. I felt like Acorn’s mare with the star in its forehead, galloping away.

I climbed down the embankment where the river widened and mixed with the sea. I waded in the swirl, fighting the twisting currents, until I came to the beach. It extended for miles in either direction and was always deserted. It was now dusk and massive pieces of driftwood seemed lit up on fire. They spooked me with the same grimaces and sneers of the lumber in the cabin. I climbed up the dunes and watched the fluorescent white waves breaking, their crashing was a noise as loud as the disturbance in my head. A logging truck appeared in the distance. It looked so small at first, like a tinker toy, a phantom, an errant thief, making a solo run so late in the day. Its speed was improbably slow.

I started peaking on the acid alone on the beach when I decided to stop the truck, stop the madness that had been going on so long. Slipping down the dune, I ran towards the truck that was growing larger. I ran onto the logging road that cut through the middle of the beach and stood in front of the truck whose long deep horn sounded like the bellowing of something being killed. I waved my fists at it, screaming for my ancestors. Then Acorn appeared out of nowhere. She seemed to have flown in. She pushed me off the road as the truck took on all the characteristics of a real object. It passed us, monstrous in length. Acorn held me tightly while I shivered. She stroked my bushy hair, her fingers getting stuck in all its knots. We climbed back up the dunes where I curled into Acorn for a long time until I came down. She kept saying how sorry she was that the acid was bad. A great honking took over the sky. We looked up as wild geese, in their triangular pattern, made their way south. I felt their wings beating in my chest.

“Geese run free,” Acorn said solemnly like it was the meaning of life.

We started laughing and rolling down the dunes. On the way back to the cabin, we almost got lost in a grove of white beech trees that shone, their trunks alive. Acorn kissed a few. We stopped at the barn to see Star, the mare, who was restlessly pawing the ground, stomping, not letting Acorn near. When I turned to say that Star was free, Acorn’s face morphed into a million people I’d known. I tried to speak but my voice wouldn’t come out. It was like my throat was vacant. When I started to freak again, Acorn took me home to bed. I lived with her for six more months. Then when the zucchini patch overflowed with monster squash, the jasmine perfumed the air, the blackberries burst with flavor and thorns, someone else came down the road. It was Conga, the carpenter, who wore overalls and had an easy smile. I didn’t mean to sleep with her, it just happened.  Conga lived in Albion, a ways south down the highway. In Albion, “woman” wasn not spelled with an “o” and the word “men” was too much of an affront. “Wimmoon” was in vogue. Last year, it had been “womb-mon.” On the Land in Albion, boy children were not allowed. I had gone there to peyote circles or during the ritual to the spring equinox. I felt the supreme logic of all that separatism had to offer when I was there. Women had been oppressed by men forever. We were second-class citizens, not in control of our destinies. When I left though and came back to Acorn, it didn’t seem all that clear who was oppressed and who was not. After I slept with Conga, Acorn wouldn’t speak to me and spent two days in bed with a migraine, laying in the loft with a blanket over her head. When she got up, she said her last words to me. They were “Get out.”  I took the puppy and went to Albion with Conga.

FORT BRAGG, 1978

It didn’t work out too long with Conga. I found out she had at least one other girlfriend. I moved to a friend’s Section 8 house in Fort Bragg. Everything in this house was old and faded, from the torn curtains to the curled linoleum to the braided area rug in the living room. Everything was covered by layers of dust. Dust that had dust. Dusty dust and cobwebs with insects still twitching to escape. When the noon whistle blew in Fort Bragg, I looked out the window to see the thick cloud of smoke from the lumber mill a few blocks away. Closer to the enemy. The day would start sunny but the fog would soon roll in and blanket the town in grey. It was a working class town of lumberjacks, fishermen, welfare mothers, Purity Market cashiers and counterculture folks.  There were mean dirt lawns and lonely spaces between clapboard houses. Many blonde-haired, bare-chested packs of young boys playing hookey roamed around. There was the backfire of souped-up cars that teenagers rode up and down on the main street from the Dairy Queen to the lumber yard, a distance of maybe two miles. I escaped often to the ocean just the other side of this street which turned back into the highway outside of town in either direction. I went there to find pretty pieces of broken glass that the waves had smoothed down. The glass came in all colors but mostly in brown, the color of beer bottles.

One day, when I was in my alcove contemplating this all, I heard my friend parting the Indian print curtain to say, “There is someone from the Land here to see you.” I peeked out and there was Acorn. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I couldn’t believe she would come into town, I couldn’t believe she was trying to find me. But there she was, standing in the middle of the living room in her usual way, with hands thrust deep into the pockets of her jeans, her legs apart so as to take up some space.

“I want you to come back to the Land,” she said.

I stared at her and felt my forehead dragged down to my cheeks by sorrow. My eyes scrunched up and the living room became a blur. I didn’t want to go back to Acorn. I did miss the Land but only because living in town seemed so hard and ugly. I was tired of living in my friend’s house. I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I didn’t know how to make any money. I should know what to do, I said to myself.  Acorn stood waiting for my answer.

“I think I am going to take a bath,” I said.

That was my solution to all of life’s problems. I was always taking a bath.

Acorn snorted, took one look at me with my eyes downcast and stomped off.

In the bathroom, over the sound of the tub filling, I could hear the front door slam. I could hear my friend turn the music back on. I let the hot water sooth me. I picked up my drawing pad that I kept nearby for inspiration in the tub. I propped it against my chest. I picked up a pencil and started to draw the meandering lines from my toes, peeking out the water, up my legs to my knees, to my rounded stomach to my flopping breasts with pink nipples. Looking down at myself, the drawing assumed the right perspective. I was intact. I would figure it out. I drew the circumference of the tub. I started to set the boundaries. It was perfect rendering. With a flourish, I signed it.

“Fledgling, 1978”

I called myself that.

Then thinking it still needed a title, I carefully blocked out the letters—

“RUNNING FREE”

© 2011 Deborah La Garbanza

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