Joyland

Vancouver |

Your Children Are Not Your Own

by Soili Smith

edited by Carleigh Baker

Cherie says I’m too smart for my own good. I read too much, use too many big words from big books, she says. This is despite my protestations. More than once I have told her that I will not be stuck reading only Gibran’s The Prophet forever, like everyone else in the Community. I told her that I don’t even say most long words correctly because I only know them from sight, not from sound. I reminded her about my impediment, too. My R’s come out as W’s, because of when she hit me in the head with that stick. She was swinging at a rock, trying to bat it into a lake and I was standing too close. My tongue’s inept now, I said. De-rhotacization. I spread my arms wide to show her how big the book I found that one in was. She snorted when I did that. So I told tell her that the librarian I checked the book out from was a man with a mustache and a circular bald patch on the top of his head like a medieval monk. His skin was green too, I said. Perhaps a by-product of sunless asceticism. What? Asceticism. What? Ask-et-i-kiss-em. She turned from me. She was sewing an anarchist patch onto her backpack. Or maybe plucking the hairs from her legs, one by one, pressing her thumb into the ones that bled. I told the back of her head as quietly as I could that the plaster of our straw bale house is pink from the blood of all the children the Community has lost. I said this because I thought she would like this kind of story. Because I would often see her watching the children through our thin kitchen window, as they chased the dogs in circles around the common area’s fire pit, and because I tell Cherie everything. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the children—naked and muddy, covered in lice, hair matted into locks—and the dogs. The people here have bled into their background. Wild as the mangy black spruce in the bogs that surround us, and stubborn as the small industrial city 40 minutes to our south. I thought maybe this was why she stared, her upper lip twitching. She didn’t turn back. Cherie never turns back. Does not forego incredulity for the likes of me. The little brother. The brain. Instead she always just says, Christ almighty, and the back of her shaved head wrinkles as if it is what’s doing the speaking. She says, Is this a story, Micheal, or is this the truth? Cherie always knows when I’ve gone too far, and so reigns me in. The truth is she only just left me. We are twenty-four and twenty-two years old.

*

When asked to speak on children, the prophet of Kahlil Gibran’s story says, Your children are not your own. They come through you, but they are not of you. Cherie hates that line. She rolls her eyes, growls if anyone repeats it. Fuck that noise, she says. Because our parents met when they were nineteen, at a folk music festival, in the dim circle of a hookah. Our mother’s friend dared her, before entering the tent, to expand her horizons, to accept her own capacity for impulsiveness and give her body to the first stranger she made eye contact with. Our father had dared himself to meet and hold each person in the circle’s gaze until part of his soul budded off, traveled across his line of sight and into theirs. He wanted, he told Mother, to be remembered. They communed that night in a teepee, beside a fire of burning herbs, with half a dozen other people watching through the smoke. Made the oldest, Trail, right then and there. They found a kind of purpose in the ease of his conception and birth, the defencelessness of his body. And then Moon’s. And Early’s. And Serengeti’s. At an organic food co-op on Commercial Drive, they met Rain, who told them about the straw-bale Community she lived in up north. Families like their family, with ideas about love like their ideas about love, living together in the truest sense possible. Mother was already pregnant with Orland and Mars when they packed the whole tribe into the van. Women in the Community helped to deliver and then breastfeed the twins while our parents and other members assembled and plastered the bales of the house. Hand dug the foundations into the grassless mud. Passed the square bales up using pulley systems of rope. I saw an etching in a book about the pyramids once that I have replaced with their visages: long loose hair, darkly freckled faces, hard, cracked hands. Rain said the change in scenery and pace took some getting used to though, that the herbs and flowers were too different up north. All Oxeye Daisy and Devil’s Club. No Chicory. No Fragrant Water Lily. Only barks in the winter, and winter for seven whole months. Mother’s body rebelled, Rain told us. It took twelve years after the move for Mother and Father to make Cherie, and then another two to make me. But by then of course, our parents had grown tired of purpose. They gave us their own names, like lazy after-thoughts. Sometimes they forgot that was the case, and looked down at us with surprise when they called our names, our small faces angled up to theirs like Morning Glories. No, they said, not you. I was speaking to Mother. I was calling Father. We shrank away, back to our make-believe games out in the trees. The Cottonwood out where the bogs became the river, with large long limbs. And we were tree people, Cherie said, people of the trees, with dirty skin for camouflage, and bare feet evolved into hooks for climbing. Watch this, she said, and dangled an impossibly long string of spit from her mouth down through the canopy, almost all the way to dead leaves on the forest floor. Of course by the time we were in the trees, the older ones had already fled into the maw of concrete capitalism. Trail became an accountant. Moon married a pharmacist and wore three diamond rings. Early went by Earl. The others traveled or went to university or got big money jobs further north. They scoffed from behind their sunglasses and new porcelain teeth at polyamory and the hippy agenda. They didn’t come back, didn’t ask about Cherie and me ever. Why would they? We had nothing in common. Their parents were not our parents. Their parents were young and loudly dogmatic. Our parents’ skin sagged. Our parents slept all day. They didn’t even fight the Ministry when the notices came saying Cherie and me had to get vaccinated, go to school. Our Father wore bifocals, pulled their Father’s wild, filthy hair into a short braid, worked at a health food store in town. Our Mother taught their Mother’s meditation at the public pool. She took Tylenol for arthritis and sighed loudly if I cried. She said flat-toned things over her shoulder like, Come now, you’ll live. Luckily for me, there was Cherie. She was the one that figured out how to brush her teeth and tie shoelaces, then taught me how to do mine. She let me lay my head on her belly at night when I was cold. Lectured me sternly when I peed my pants. Cherie was the one that climbed the wooden counters for bowls in the mornings, tucked my pockets back in, wiped the stray oats off my face before we got on the bus.

*

When I think about it, really Cherie has been leaving me little by little, starting most noticeably from when we were twelve and ten, a month before Trent’s accident. In the middle of the night, early September to be exact, the weather already starting to turn. We were up Ginter’s Hill, in town near Trent’s suburban house. We walked through the beetle-ravaged pines. Me and Cherie and Trent, shivering in our T-shirts and shaking our flashlights at the trunks of the trees, defiant for the time being. I started whining about going back because we finally saw the rocks laid in a square that were supposed to be the foundations of the old house. The Ginter family’s, we assumed. Either way, it was old and they were definitely all dead, especially the babies, Cherie said, dead bitches. Dead fucks, said Trent. The two of them were an inseparable pair the summer they both turned twelve. They were daring, trouble-seeking in a mean way. They liked to steal knick-knacks from the houses in the Community. They once stole some crafts the older ones had made for Mother, and buried them under the potatoes in the garden near the Community’s center. They liked that people might look out their windows at the garden every day, and never know what dumb pointless thing of theirs was hidden there. When I objected to their follies, Cherie would flick me on the forehead for being stupid. They often picked on me. But that was fair, since I was always there, pulling. All Cherie’s shirts used to hang a little pointed on the left side from my clawed hands. That night at Ginter’s the two of them took turns pushing each other and making low sounds at me. They knew how white their grins were, how much they looked like ghosts in the night. They took advantage of my smallness. Whispered about murder and corpses in my ear. About the way bodies and souls rot. Probably the first time I’d ever thought about dying, and fear-like sickness went from my heart to my belly. I didn’t want to see ghosts and I didn’t want to die. My first tear fell silently but didn’t go unnoticed. Cherie called me a drama queen. Trent laughed, picked up a pebble and whipped it past my ear, and sometime after it knocked against a tree. Something rustled in response, and we all jumped. That was when I started sobbing, choked on the snot in my throat when I tried to beg Cherie to take me home. Trent laughed some more but didn’t take his eyes off the spot the rustle came from. Cherie put her hands on my shoulders and looked down at me. She said, Michael, shut up. The moon was white behind the trees behind her head so that her big ears were translucent but her face was black. I could only kind of see her eyes. Just the outline of them, and the shiny reflection of light at their centers. I saw the vague shapes of other parts of her face too, like any blurry figure in a half-remembered dream. But even in the darkness I knew what she was thinking just as she was thinking it, because she and I are made of the same parts. I could feel how disappointed she was at the sight of the snot and the tears on my incessant little pincers, even if it was what she wanted. I could feel her body clicking into place, the realization that she was taller, older, the only one, and suddenly ashamed of someone she loves. I accepted then that I was a pussy, and knew fully what that meant before she even said it, throwing her weight into her palms and me into the dirt.

*

Father left suddenly, in the middle of the afternoon. A mere 48 hours after Cherie kicked Trent off the trampoline in his backyard, paralyzing him from the chest down. He went, he said, to go find himself with a group protesting cruise ships on the northern coast, near Haida Gwaii. He held Mother’s hand at the door like they were long-time business partners at the end of a mutually agreed upon buyout. Mother sniffled but still smiled. She understood his decision completely. Father told Cherie, I have to find out what in me, did this in you. We were just parts of our parents you see, scrambled up until homogenous like eggs. He cupped her face like he had probably done with the others when they were small, but had not with us up until that point. Cherie flinched. Father cringed. Our parents had to leave to be accountable for us. Father died when an embolism stopped his heart, and he tumbled off his watch boat and into the Pacific. Then Mother went digging in the Community garden, with her back to the house. She pulled up previously buried baubles and shook them at us through the windows, glaring through her hair like a funeral veil. It was our parents’ fault Cherie and Trent had started playing rough together, wrestling. For Trent it was just fun, about finding the limits and potential of his physical strength. It was physical for Cherie too, but in a different way. She had grown three inches in the last six months. There was hair on her arms. White bulbs under her nipples like hardboiled eggs. Her face was constantly red and she smelled like the Community’s goat shack. Most days she wanted to kill me, and tried. After Ginter’s, she’d stopped helping me dress and eat. She’d started tripping me when I walked by to see if I could catch myself before something sharp and fated like a table or a door did. She experimented with Trent, too. She tried touching his hair once and he dodged it like a cat, frowning. She’d touch her knee against his and he would scoot down the bench on the bus. So one day she tripped him, like with me, and he looked up from the dirt laughing. He started tripping back. She’d trip him and he’d trip back two days later, looking in her eyes and saying, I never forget. Soon they were grabbing. Then grabbing and falling. Then grabbing and falling and rolling. The day of the accident he dove at her on the trampoline and she kicked him in the chest as hard as she could. He landed on the grass, on his head. Cherie said she heard his neck pop. I didn’t. Still, I hid behind Trent’s shed, shaking. Cherie clutched at her groin, she looked confused, and then she laughed and laughed hysterically even after he got hauled away in the ambulance with his nice, bawling parents. It was hours before someone came into town and found me; they had forgotten that I was there. It was Cherie who alerted them, Rain said, asking between hiccup-like giggles, Where’s Michael where’s Michael? Rain, now the Community’s Emergency Mother, picked me up in her Oldsmobile. It was dusk by the time I got home and I was shivering and blue. You need a blanket, she said. Cherie was sitting on the floor in the cushions of the family nest, where we all slept, rubbing her legs and breathing hard, like a sick animal. I don’t know where Mother and Father were. I pulled a blanket out from under her, ran back outside and climbed the apple tree in the Community’s center in case whatever Cherie had was contagious, but also to look out for her, should anyone like the Ministry try to come and take her away, like they did when Rain’s grandson was bitten by a rabid dog. What Cherie had wasn’t contagious of course. It was a gift from our parents—the baseness of bodily impulse and an absurd faith in intent.

*

It’s hard to remember my first fight because of the head butt and all the head butts that followed. But sometimes, like now, it’s clear as day. It was with a kid named Justice, newly immigrated from Ghana, who said, because he was trying to make friends, that my sister was a bitch for crippling Trent. Everyone had something to say about it now that Trent was back in school, wheeling around the hallways, high as a kite, conspicuous as an open wound. I was fourteen. I head butted Justice in the shoulder though I was aiming for his throat. He got a shot in just above my eye, but that was it. On the ground, I had him by the shirt, lifting him up and slamming him back down into the grass. His teeth kept clicking against each other because his jaw was slack. My. Sis. Ter. Is. Not. A. Bitch. She was not watching the fight, though she was there, in her car in the student parking lot, smoking a cigarette, ashing it out onto the gravel. She was checking her phone and wishing I would just stop already. Why are you like this? she was probably thinking, please kill yourself. She was constantly telling me to kill myself because she knew I should be better than I was. It was her way of saying I needed to get it together or move on. I could hear her voice repeating over the dull thudding of Justice’s head in the grass. A school monitor showed up, yelling my name. I paused, turned my ear instinctively in Cherie’s direction. Got up and ran to her. She looked sideways at me, now sweating beside her in the car, reached over and touched the bloody cut over my eye. What the fuck? she said. I’m fine, I said, just go. She wiped my blood on her shirt, threw a napkin at me. She had bought the phone and the car with the money from her job working as a night shift janitor at a sawmill. Mother, the environmental warrior, was distantly furious about this. Were we too, just going to turn on her, like our older siblings? Who? Cherie asked her. Who? Who? Who? We got home the day of the fight, I was still bleeding from the cut. I probably needed stitches. Mother didn’t even look up at us when we got out of the car. The school must have called her about the fight by then. As Cherie and I walked by her, Mother said to the ground, Violence is never the answer… the prophet said that. I didn’t tell her that he hadn’t. I followed Cherie’s lead and said nothing in response, shuffling behind her into our cartoonishly DIY house. In the house, Cherie never said another word to me about the fight. Just handed me some glue to pour into my cut, got naked and shouldered me hard on her way to the sink outside the kitchen, the one with the mirror above it, the only mirror in the house. She had an electric razor in her hand that she had probably bought with her mill money too. When it was done, her hair lay like a torn cape across her shoulders and back. Cherie stared in the mirror at her fresh baldness, her eyes like the big marbles with the sparkles in them that everyone always wanted when they were little, and gently fingered the ringworm scar on the back of her head. We had both had it in elementary school, and it had gone untreated for so long, we ended up with a lot of coiled, hairless patches. They had caught it in the Community animals first—the goats, then the dogs. Mother and Father tried several natural remedies They were stubborn and distracted; the older kids weren’t going to be coming home for Solstice that year, none of them. No poison masquerading as medicine for their current kids then, no government chemicals in this blood. Only when the school stepped in did we go see a doctor. I was scared by his red face, the way his tie looked like it was choking him. Cherie made funny faces at me so that I wouldn’t cry. She made one in the mirror, wrinkling the skin on the round top of her head. Cherie never stopped shaving. People saw the scar and her makeup-less face and stopped teasing her about Trent. In grade 12, she started a death metal band called Axis of Ringworm that played songs with no lyrics because no one she knew could scream.

*

I fought all the way through high school, for any reason I could come up with. Cherie would shoulder me at home and I’d go shoulder some guy in the hallway laughing too hard with his friends. I’d always let them get a few hits in first, but after that I was efficient. I’d get them on the ground and that would be it. I never got tall, so my body was a brick and difficult to pin. I liked to leave them with a parting quote, from a favorite book, for dramatic flare. Vengeance that is slow to come is all the more complete, I would say. Soon the school was threatening to expel me, so I stopped fighting and started following Cherie to her shows and moshing with the forty or so other kids there. I grew hair down to the middle of my back. Someone at the show would always ball it in their fist and pull me back until I crashed into them. The shows would be in an older guy’s basement, or out in fields or abandoned trucking scales. They’d bring amps and generators and wooden pallets for a stage. If I got too close, reached out at her, the steel toe of Cherie’s boot would find me, without her ever looking up from the guitar. She could always find me, and me her. We avoided home as much as possible and separately; me at school or the public library in town, and her anywhere else. Yet we always went to the weekly Community meetings together and sat by the fire. Rain was old, out of touch, and yet supportive of Cherie’s experimentation with music and aesthetic. She told us stories about our parents while Mother made the rounds, cradling second-generation Community babies, cooing in their faces and kissing them on the mouths. Cherie was always watching her, and I was always watching Cherie. One night Rain said to us, Love is such a tangled thing, and children are like birds. She said it was hard but necessary for parents to set their birds free. They needed to become whole beings after all, and that could only be done alone. They are not your own, she said. Suddenly, Cherie was twenty-years old, a woman. Her face was no longer soft in the fire’s orange light. It was angular, shadowed. Trent, her once friend, had been stabbed, murdered at a party over drugs. I’m not sure how long Cherie had been sleeping with the guy who did it. This time I knew she was going to leave me. She was drunk. I didn’t smell it until she opened her mouth. Rain quoted again from The Prophet, talked more about freedom and growth, about the logic of our parents. Fuck off, Rain, Cherie said. Rain nodded her head. She was supportive of Cherie’s anger. Somehow, I’d made it through high school, probably because by then I knew more about books than most of my teachers. I was going to graduate in June, but Cherie wasn’t going to be there. She was going to go tree planting in a couple of weeks with a company based in town and forget about this hellhole. All of her earthly possessions—a guitar, her hair clippers, an old army jacket she bought at the surplus—were already packed in her car. Against my better judgment, I pulled at the corner of her shirt. Who’s going to be there at the thing? I asked. What thing? she said. The graduation thing, I said. I’ll be there, Michael! Rain jumped and her breasts swung wildly. She had taken off her shirt to better absorb the heat of the fire. Cherie’s face was flickering. She looked like she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to choke or hold me. Yeah, she said. Rain’ll be at the thing—she leaned forward, cupped my face with her hand, like Father, then slapped it—so shut the fuck up.

*

I didn’t go to university because I had no patience to do the upgrading at the college. I’d read all the books for their introductory courses by then and I know everything I need to in order to survive a consumerist world if I have to. But Mother and Father were right about school to some extent—it’s a government imposed formality. At twenty I started to equate knowledge with experience. I started liking the folk music that my parents had fallen in love to. Vancouver bands from the seventies with names like River, whose albums only existed on original vinyl or maybe, if I was lucky, cassette. I wrote, and still write, for a music website that actually pays me, about the contribution of this kind of music to contemporary understandings of art: a purview of neoliberalism. Still, I never made enough to live anywhere but with Mother, so I stayed. She started staggering after Cherie moved out, and catching her became a habit. She has the shakes all the time now, has trouble digging up the potatoes in the garden, and holding a pen. Mother, I said, you need to go see a doctor. I’m fine, child, she said, her body moving continuously, as if she were balancing on top of a ball. She looked out to the garden through the window. Michael, she said, remembering. Yes, I said, my face a Morning Glory at her shoulder. Michael, Michael, Michael. She wrote long letters to Father, then lit them on fire with burning swaths of herbs. She looked at me finally, perhaps with recognition. Where is Mars’ dream catcher? she said. The one he made at the potluck once upon a time? I tried to picture Mars and couldn’t. In the photographs on the wall, I couldn’t tell the twins apart. Moon I knew because of her kids. Serengeti was very tall. They were all pretty tall. Hovering on the wall, their pictures were like stock photos, only the children had rotten teeth and dark eyes from recurring bouts of whooping cough. Trail quit accounting, got a divorce, and moved back home for a pre-midlife crisis. He winked at me in the doorway, called me Kiddo, I think, because unlike Mother, he wouldn’t bring himself to say his father’s name. How come you’re so short, he said. I looked at him and said nothing. To myself, I wondered where his black hair came from, his wide nose. I thought perhaps hookahs and music make for confusing nights and maybe he is not either of our Fathers’ son. Where’s the plugins? he shouted. Where can I charge my phone? Trail was loud, always asking for things. And fat and hairy from an adult life of hormone filled food but Mother lay in the nest with him anyway, and massaged healing oils into his temples with her trembling knuckles. At twenty-two, I leave them to it, and follow Cherie out tree planting. She had come home before the season started to Trail lying in the nest, looking up at her from his book about peace of mind. Cherie said, What the— and Mother said, Sssshhhh. She stayed for a few hours, until Trail asked her if she ever had to do any follow up with the police, you know, after the whole Trent thing. He said it in a theatre whisper, scrunching his face. I thought then that I might never see her again. She sounded so tired on the phone when I asked again to come plant with her, so I pulled back, told her just to forget it. Christ, Mike, she said, sounding like she was scratching her head. I didn’t know where she was. Fine, she said, ‘bout time you got a job. She gave me the email of her buddy that ran a crew for a big rookie mill and hung up. Cherie’s a super veteran planter, a baller, puts in three to four thousand trees a day, and so got on with a small company a little further north with unfathomably high tree prices. All their contracts are remote access, by helicopter mostly. The crew lives in abandoned cabins with no heat. Often we had no heat growing up in the straw-bale house, which grew damp and moldy after the others left. So Cherie thrived planting, made good money. My company had many resources. There was Internet in camp, and portable toilets and a trailer with hot showers. A cook made our meals and we worked short shifts, with long days off. I was terrible at work. The company threatened to fire me because three weeks in I still couldn’t plant enough to make minimum wage. You’re a tough lookin’ guy, the foreman said, eyeing my scars, what’s the matter with you? I told him, blurry-eyed, that it’s hard out there in the barren open, with no tree cover or clouds and only myself. My crying unnerved him and he backed off. I wondered if he would call Cherie, tell her about how stupid I was being. Did he know how to call her? If I could just speak with her I’d be okay. Can I please speak with her? This is where we are when Cherie disappears: me, on a sandy cutblock outside of Mackenzie, blubbering to a stranger, and her in between contracts, with her same beat-up car, on a solo trip to Kinuseo Falls.

*

They all fly in or drive up with their spouses and children in efficient family-sized sedans and SUV’s. They pile into the house and stare out the windows at Mother’s frail body in the garden. They’ve come to help organize the search efforts that have already been going on for two months. Trail rented a boat with some of his savings and drove it up and down the river at the base of the falls, to no avail. I had rented a tent trailer and parked it in a campsite within spitting distance of the falls. I climbed the mountains every day, with and without the rescue workers. Now I’ve come home to shake hands, meet the children who bite me and call me Uncle. Moon twists her many-ringed fingers, anxious to be back in the house, especially now because she is probably the most sane of the lot. Mother holds all of their faces one-by-one, and tells them she’s so happy they’re here. Trail, Moon, Early, Serengeti, Orland, Mars, back in the house their father built. They love their father, miss his wisdom and wit. Around the fire, Rain is dancing naked while clean children chase Community children in circles, squealing. I am sitting up in the tree, away from the fire’s light, surveying their faces and the ugly tales that come out. They share stories of the times they should’ve died, but didn’t. The time Mars fell out of a Cottonwood and onto his back. He couldn’t feel his whole legs for a day. And the time Serengeti ate goat shit and almost died. Wasn’t that funny, in retrospect? In the fire’s light, their shadowed cheeks look cavernous. Old. They laugh in cackles. Yes, they say, in retrospect, after having their own children, their parents’ fervor and the havoc it wreaked on their young lives was not really all that bad. They have forgiven us for the distance they themselves imposed. They kiss the forgiveness right into Mother’s smooth and bulbous knuckles and she says, Oh, oh! Trail and Moon and Early and Serengeti and Orland and Mars kiss Mother’s hands and tell her to go see a doctor about the shaking. Parkinson’s, they say. Of course babies, she says, of course. They surround her. It’s time to be realistic and stop looking, they say. That’s why they’re really here. A tourist saw Cherie lean over the safety guard of the falls with her camera. There’s a picture of her. She looked gaunt, her shaved head, suicidal. Didn’t she love angry music? Hadn’t they always known she was on the edge, since Trent? Maybe she had a heart thing like Father, and fell. Wherever she is, she’s not in pain, nothing troubles her anymore. Oh, oh, says Mother. I scoff at them. They are insane. My spot in the tree is the only true perspective in this place, though I’m heavier now than the last time I was here, and the branches can barely hold my weight. The leaves shake along with my head. The others and their spouses could not be more wrong. They’re conclusions are not based on actual evidence, only assumptions. Confirmation bias. None of them know Cherie like me; they’re not made of what we’re made of. Our parents are not their parents. Cherie loves me enough to make me feel it and I still do. If she were dead, trapped under the gush of some cascading river, I and I alone would know. People leave all the time—they left, father left—it was just Cherie’s turn, let her have her turn. She’s gone, yes, but my sister is alive and well, smoking cigarettes in her car, refusing to look back in my direction, furious and embarrassed by the dramatic way I let tears fall off my jaw and down to the ground. Like a goddamn pussy, she says.