The story went that Cedar refused the breast one day when he was eight months old and never nursed again. Impatient for milk, he bit down on Kathleen’s nipple, so, surprised by the pain, she slapped him lightly on the cheek. Then he gave her a look she could hardly believe, an adult expression that seemed to say he’d remember this moment, and she’d be sorry one day. Kathleen’s forehead would crease for a moment at this point in the story, then she would laugh and continue. When she drew him back to her breast, he turned his head to the side, mouth clamped shut. Fed up with his stubborn-ness, she set him on the kitchen floor and placed before him a plastic cup half filled with cold milk. And you know what you did? she would ask. Of course Cedar knew. He’d heard the story a dozen times in his six years of life, but he shook his head no, savoring the sound of his name on his mother’s lips. You drank it all without spilling a drop. And then you looked at me like you told me so.
No, I didn’t do that, Cedar would say, smiling. It’s not true.
You don’t remember, but you did. Yep. You were walking and talking in sentences by ten months. You came out ready to be a tiny man. Not like this chunk. Then she would tickle Cedar’s brother Rain, who, at two, still nursed, spoke in single words and noises, and preferred crawling to walking.
Cedar always looked at the floor to hide the thrill he felt when he heard this story, but later he would wonder why the Cedar Kathleen talked about never seemed like the Cedar he felt inside. He never remembered any of it happening, for one thing, and deep down he feared it was all a lie.
The reservoir at the base of the tree was full so he kinked the hose and dragged it to the peach tree. The water shot out and ate away the chalky soil, exposing the tops of the roots. He didn’t care. He’d been tunneling into the roots for weeks. The trees, skinny, fruitless twigs that his mother bought from a nursery in Aguanga, didn’t mean anything to him except that he had to stand around watering them every day.
The cloud drew nearer and Cedar made out an unfamiliar light blue pickup. When it slowed and turned left onto the drive they shared with Drug Dealer Jack he called out to his mother. She came out of the cabin and stood beside him, Rain propped at her hip. The truck, a rusty Chevy, picked down the rutted drive and stopped beside Cedar and Kathleen. The passenger door opened with a metal pop and a huge woman lumbered out. She wore a green robe with gold trim, and when she lifted her hand in greeting the flesh of her arm hung in a thick sheet below her bicep. “Hi there,” she said. “We just met the Tims and they told us about you.”
She was talking about Tim and Tim, two men who lived together a way up the road. Cedar had been brought there to swim in their pool a few times, but the water was cold and the pool small and deep and painted dark blue. The Tims had dug it themselves. Everyone swam naked. Cedar didn’t like to have to look at the dark thatches of hair on the grownups as they lay on the pool’s rim, and he didn’t want anyone to see his body. When he refused to get in the water Kathleen was embarrassed and explained to everyone that Cedar actually swam well. He learned in his grandparents’ pool and in the ocean, but everyone there wore swimsuits, and it was different. After a few times Kathleen quit bringing him to the Tims’.
A small man with thick curly black hair that melded into his beard came around the driver’s side and leaned against the truck’s grill. “We just set camp this morning,” the woman said. “Beautiful country.” A girl with stringy yellow hair hopped out next and stood at her mother’s side. She stared at Cedar as the grownups talked. “And this is my daughter Morning Blossom,” the fat woman said. “What’s your name, little man?”
The water under the tree was running out in a stream. “I have to turn this off,” Cedar said, and jogged with the hose toward the faucet. The grownups laughed as he shut the water off and coiled the hose.
“Come inside. I have tea,” Kathleen said. “Cedar, why don’t you go play with Morning Blossom?” He looked at his mother and hoped she would see that he didn’t want to be left with the girl, but she was talking to the fat woman and walked inside without seeing him.
“What do you want to do?” asked the girl. She was pointy at the elbows, at the chin, at the corners of her mouth and eyes. Her front teeth were too large for her mouth and pressed into her bottom lip. Cedar didn’t like looking at her so stared at his mud-splattered feet.
“Don’t know,” he said. He’d never met a girl before. Not that he could remember. Mostly there was his mom and Rain. He saw kids at the beach when he stayed there, but he never talked to any of them. “Can you climb rocks?” he asked the girl.
“Maybe,” she said. “Yes.”
He led her to the edge of Donkeyman’s property and held up the barbed wire fence for her. She ducked under and when her hair caught she grabbed the trapped tangle and yanked, leaving a fuzzy yellow knot wrapped around the barb. They walked along coyote trails marked with Cedar’s own footprints, around sagebrush, scrub oak and bunches of cactus. He stove in a red ant hole with his heel and suddenly was talking. “That’s Dinosaur Rock, and that one is Racecar Rock, and that one over there is Mushroom Rock. You can’t climb Mushroom Rock. Way over there by the edge of the onion fields, that’s Caterpillar Rock.” He’d never uttered these names before. Until now, they’d only been in his head.
“What’s that called?” She pointed to a bumpy knob beyond Mushroom Rock.
The question seemed stupid. “It’s just a rock.”
Eventually they arrived at the foot of Nose Rock, the tallest of them all. The girl asked why it was called that. “It’s a nose,” said Cedar, placing his hands on the surface, “sticking up. Like there’s a giant buried under here, and only his nose is out.” Flecks of mica sparkled in the sunlight. On nights when moonlight came through his window and kept him awake he often snuck out and climbed the roof to stare at the stones glowing throughout the dark valley. Sometimes he wondered how they’d gotten there. He imagined them growing slowly from the ground like cabbages. He imagined them dropping from the sky. But mostly he let his vision go wide, taking the stars and stones in at once, seeing everything and not seeing anything, understanding in a deep place that the rocks, like the stars, had always been there and would never go away.
He boosted the girl up the steep part, then he scrambled after. At the tip they sat around a small pool of rainwater. Toward the highway Donkeyman’s aluminum trailer sat before the large white stable house. “There’s my place,” the girl said, pointing to a white cone on the edge of the Reservation, on the other side of the highway, beyond the rocky dome called Chichi Hill.
“Why do you live in a teepee?” he asked. “Indians don’t even live in them anymore. Are you Indian?”
She shrugged. “Don’t know. No, I don’t think I’m Indian.” A circling hawk dove into the brush. She hugged herself when a breeze slapped the hem of her dress against her red knees.
“Why isn’t your dad around?” she asked. “Did he split?”
“He’s at the beach,” Cedar said quickly. “He’s going to bring me back there sometime.” Then he felt stupid for telling her that and wished he hadn’t.
A dog barked. “Donkeyman,” Cedar said. They lay on their bellies and watched a stooped man in a cowboy hat walk slowly to the stable house. He adjusted his hat and turned directly toward them. He wiped his hand on his thigh then disappeared through the wide stable doors. A few moments later he emerged with a line of several donkeys in tow and led them off the property and down the road out of sight.
“Let’s go down there,” the girl said. Happiness and fear surged through Cedar. He’d thought the same thing many times. They climbed down and made their way to a clump of scrub at the edge of the lot. A blue-gray dog with bent ears scratched at the dirt in the shadow of the stable. The trailer gleamed like a polished bullet dropped in the sand.
The dog yawned, lay down and sighed with its nose in the dust. Cedar looked at the girl and his body pulsed. “Let’s go,” he whispered, “into the trailer.” She bit her bottom lip and nodded once. Together they broke from their hiding place and sprinted into the yard. The dog’s barks ripped open the silence. Cedar hurtled to the top of the three steps that led to the front door and pulled on the knob. The girl bumped into his back. “Hurry,” she said against his neck. He turned the knob and the door swung out, knocking him back into her. She held onto his waist and they both stumbled into the trailer just before the dog arrived scratching and barking at the door.
The room seemed too neat, too normal for the way Cedar felt, heart thumping, breath coming in gulps. “Hurry,” the girl said, “before he comes back.”
There was a couch facing a small television with rabbit ears outstretched, a coffee table, a bare shelf. Cedar tip-toed into the kitchen and opened a cabinet to reveal a stack of white plates and rows of amber glasses. Another cabinet held phone books with curling, torn edges. Cedar touched the bottles and jars under the sink, turning them around to look at the labels. In a tall cabinet were rows of boxes and cans. Cedar opened a box and filled his hand with Coco Pebbles, a cereal he knew from his grandparents’ house. Some of the pebbles fell to the floor, so he brushed them into his hand and put them in the plastic trash can. “What if we lived here?” Morning Blossom said. He felt her breath on his bare shoulder. Cedar could imagine it well, just the two of them. They could do whatever they wanted. Watch television all night. Let lizards live with them as pets.
He was about to turn on the television when a loud vehicle rattled by. “Let’s go,” Morning Blossom said, tugging at one of his belt loops. He ignored her and crept into the hall. Some coats hung in a closet. She followed close behind him, watching over his shoulder. The hallway got darker the farther in they went. They passed a dim bathroom and continued to the closed door at the end of the hall. The barking sounded far off. Cedar’s damp hand slipped on the doorknob. He let go when the mechanism clicked and the door swung into the room a couple of inches. He exhaled and pushed the door open. The foot of the bed appeared in the light of a window with drawn brown curtains. A dresser stood in the corner. Something bright lay across the bed. Cedar choked and backed into the girl. A naked woman lay uncovered there.
Suddenly Cedar was in the living room, fumbling to open a window. His fingers couldn’t get the latch to work. The girl made squeaking sounds while the dog barked and scratched the door. Cedar sunk alongside the couch, hiding. The girl joined him there and wrapped her arms around his neck. He reeled, dizzy and finally took a deep, gasping breath.
After some time Cedar calmed down. Nothing had happened. The girl loosened her grip around his neck. “Did you see the eyes?” she whispered. “They were open. I think she’s dead.” She stood and went into the hall. “Look,” she said from deep in the trailer, “it’s okay.” Cedar joined her in the bedroom. The woman’s yellow hair was tied in pigtails. The waxy skin reflected a strip of light that slipped through a gap in the curtains. The bright red mouth formed a wide “O,” and the blue eyes were round and shocked. It was a large plastic doll. The skin was the same pink all over, except for the nipples and a thin space between the legs, which were the same red as the mouth. A triangular patch of the yellow hair sprouted above the crotch. Morning Blossom put her index finger against the doll’s right cheek and pushed in. Cedar placed his hand on the cool stomach. The doll had no belly button.
“It’s Donkeyman’s old lady,” Morning Blossom whispered. “I bet he balls it.” Cedar had never imagined such a thing as adults playing with toys, especially men with dolls. “He puts his dick in it, you know?” She turned to him, holding onto one of the pigtails. “You don’t know about balling, do you?” Cedar wanted to leave. “Your folks never showed you, huh? It’s because your dad’s gone.”
Then the dog stopped barking and the silence became like noise. They looked at each other and took off down the hall. Cedar flung open the door and jumped off the landing. The dog, distracted by an animal probably, barked from behind the barn. They made it into the brush and dodged around bushes and rocks toward the cabin, laughing and panting as they ran side be side. They ducked under the fence onto Cedar’s property, but, still running, he led them away from the cabin. Finally they stopped in the sandy center of a grove of manzanita. Cedar flung himself gasping to the cool ground, and Morning Blossom fell beside him. After a while their laughter and gulps of breath slowed. Gauzy clouds drifted by overhead. Her hand was locked in his. A breeze ruffled their hair and caused goose bumps to crawl along their bare limbs.
He listened to her name in his mind. Morning Blossom. “Will you show it to me?” she asked.
He climbed to his knees and unclasped the top button of his shorts. He hesitated for a moment, and in one movement pulled the shorts off his hips and let them rest crumpled over his knees in the sand. He closed his eyes when her fingers touched him. His legs were getting tired but he stood frozen. After a while the touch stopped. “Okay, now you do it to me.”
He pulled up his shorts and sat. She hiked up her dress. “Put your finger here,” she said, grabbing his hand, “and move it around.” She was slippery and firm. A feeling like hunger grew in him, but after a while he became bored, and then felt sick to his stomach. He stood and started for home without saying anything. Neither spoke on the walk back, and by the time they reached the cabin he’d begun to hated her.
Her parents sat on the couch and Cedar’s mom before them on the floor. Rain nestled between her crossed legs, chewing on a Lincoln Log. “What have you kids been up to?” asked Morning Blossom’s mom. They both said “nothing” at the same time. The grownups laughed. “It must have been an interesting nothing if you both had to tell us about it so quickly.” Cedar feared Morning Blossom’s mom knew what they’d done; he sensed she had that power. Her silent father’s face was hidden behind his beard and glasses.
After the guests left, Cedar asked his mom why Rain never talked. “He talks, in his own way,” she said. “He probably just doesn’t want to say anything most of the time. Isn’t that right Rainy?” She grabbed him by the face and blew on his cheek. He giggled and squirmed.
“He’s not like you,” she said. “You were talking before you knew any human words. You would say things in the language you spoke before you got here.”
Cedar asked where he lived before he was born, even though he already knew.
“Heaven. We remember heaven for a while after we’re born, but we have to forget because we couldn’t handle living in this world if we remembered how it was there.” Cedar imagined heaven as a white cloud of nothingness. “’Mokedy’ was your word for milk; your blanket was ‘peecee,’ and you called water ‘arlew,’” said Kathleen. “That’s when I knew you were talking another language, when you said ‘arlew,’ because it was just too weird to make up.”
Rain waddled over and dropped to his hands and knees. He tilted his head to look up at Cedar like a small dog. His hair was the color of red clay and his eyes were green and so large he seemed surprised by everything he saw. Freckles the size of corn kernels dotted his fat cheeks and nowhere else. Their grandmother was always telling Kathleen to put Rain in commercials. She used to be a model in Hollywood and still knew some people. “What are you thinking, Rain?” asked Cedar. Rain pushed himself up, tottered, and rolled over onto his side. Kathleen scooped him onto her lap.
“Do you remember Hawaii?” she asked. Then she started telling the story of Cedar, his dad and her hiking twelve miles into the jungle on the island of Kauai when they first went to Taylor Camp. They all had packs, even three-year-old Cedar, who kept stopping because he was tired, so that Kathleen had to tell him there was a tiger in the jungle waiting to eat him if he didn’t keep moving. She said he would look into the jungle and then back at her, searching her face like he didn’t believe, but would start walking anyway because he couldn’t be sure. That was the story but he didn’t let her finish it today.
“You already told me this a hundred times,” he said, and left the cabin.
The next afternoon Morning Blossom’s mom pulled up in the truck and started talking to Kathleen. Cedar heard her say something about hair. He was thankful his mom was thin and pretty. She had straight blond hair that hung around her bare shoulders. Her eyes were green and pleasant to look into, except when she was angry and they turned to bright slits. His dad told him once that she was a Newport hottie. Cedar didn’t understand a lot of what his dad told him, but he understood what hottie meant. His mom looked like the women on television, in the surf and music magazines his dad had in stacks, and on the covers of record albums.
He imagined having to go into a store with Morning Blossom’s mom; everyone would think she was his mother. He would rather run away from home than have a mother like that.
“Come on, Cedar,” Kathleen said. “We’re going to visit Morning Blossom.”
“I don’t want to,” he said, though he knew he didn’t have a choice.
Her eyes creased. “What is your problem? Come on. I can’t leave you here alone.”
“Why not? I’ll just do what I do anyway.”
“Because no. That’s why. What if you get bit by a rattlesnake?”
“I can go to Drug Dealer Jack’s,” he said. “Or I can cut it open myself and suck out the poison. I know what to do.”
She sighed. “You have an answer for everything. No. Get in the truck.” He knew the wooden spoon would be next so he climbed into the truck and crossed his arms, trying not to touch either of the women as they pulled away from the cabin.
Morning Blossom was throwing gravel at a rusty road sign when they arrived. Cedar jumped out of the truck and wandered until he came to an ant hole. He found a stinkbug, and careful to keep the butt pointed away from him he pinched off one of its legs and dropped it into the center of the ants. It raised its butt to shoot the stink but soon the ants were on it. Sometimes a five-legged stinkbug could escape a red ant hole, but not this time. It was halfway down when Morning Blossom leaned her chin against his shoulder and looked on. “That hurts,” he said, shrugging her off. She squatted beside him and watched until the bug was gone, and the ants came and went as if nothing had happened.
“I know a neat place,” Morning Blossom said, standing sway-backed, hands on her hips. Cedar shrugged and followed a few feet behind when she started off away from the road. They walked over a rise and were soon out of sight of the teepee. Cedar lagged behind and peed on a mustard bush. Morning Blossom ran back to him and peeked around his side. “Let me see,” she said.
He pushed her away hard, and turned to finish. They walked on, not talking, not looking at each other. He didn’t care if he’d hurt her feelings. He hoped he had.
They slid down a steep bank into a deep arroyo, onto the firm, cool sand below. They followed the kinks in the dry riverbed, cool in the shade where they could forget about the large sunny world above. A twisted fencepost dangled from wires in the wind overhead, where the river had eaten away the earth under a section of fence. The narrow walls opened up to a wide, sandy area shaded by pepper trees. Three junked cars riddled with bullet holes rusted half buried in the sand in the center of the clearing. Two of the cars were very old and one, a station wagon, still had a few flecks of blue paint stuck to the corroded body. Cedar picked a red shotgun shell from the sand. Shells littered the entire clearing, plastic shotgun shells and the smaller gold and pewter shells of pistols and rifles, all scattered about like rabbit turds. He hurled a hubcap at the wagon, and the deep sound it made filled him with energy.
“These could be Bonnie and Clyde’s cars,” he said of the older ones; he’d seen the movie on television once and hadn’t been able to sleep all that night, picturing and re-picturing the end, the bullets passing through metal and flesh. He hopped into one of the cars and scooped up a handful of shattered glass granules that covered the steel floor. “I’ll be Clyde and you’re Bonnie.”
Morning Blossom climbed into the other car. He hurled the beads at her, and she ducked behind her car’s door. She returned fire with a handful of her own. The glass rained against the hood, and a few of the granules tapped the skin of Cedar’s chest. He made a dash to her car and sprayed the glass at close range. She turned her back to absorb the attack and climbed down after him with another fistful of glass. He’d used up all the beads in his car, so he picked up a wedge of cracked windshield and threw it like a Frisbee. As he let go, he felt a surge of joy and fear. The heavy triangle sailed out over the hood of the car, turning slowly. He thought then that it wouldn’t hit her. He had only been playing and never even considered it might actually hit her. He couldn’t see her from where he crouched in the gutted cab, but he was sure she would be out of the way. He hadn’t thrown it right. He had purposely thrown it badly. Still, maybe he shouldn’t have thrown such a heavy piece of glass. He wished for the rotating disc of cracked glass to freeze in space, but it dropped out of sight over the front of the car and a shriek replaced the soft sound of breeze rustling the leaves of the pepper trees.
He climbed over the hood. Morning Blossom kneeled in the sand holding the top of her head in both hands. Blood leaked out from between her fingers and dripped down her hair. Cedar had never seen so much blood. It streamed down her arms and collected in dark spots around her in the sand. He jumped down beside her. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he kept repeating. He put his arms around her and pressed her head against his chest. Her blood smeared against his skin.
Why had he thrown the glass? he frantically asked himself. Why had he told her not to look when he was peeing? Why had he hated her after they’d touched each other in the manzanita grove? He wished it all to reverse. She was crying harder now and he still repeated that he was sorry. Tears ran down his cheek and mixed with the blood in her hair. He became certain she would soon be dead. He’d killed her. He feared all the trouble he would be in, and decided to kill himself rather than face the adults. He took his hands from her head and considered the dark blood on the palms. It smelled like metal, like his hands after he’d been swinging on the bars that held up the clothesline. With no idea why, he licked the blood from his right palm. It tasted metallic and bitter, and with an aftertaste like goat’s milk.
They held each other until their sobs quieted down to whimpers and the breeze rustled through the trees again. She opened her eyes and looked up at him. They were light brown and murky with tears; one of them had three flecks of gold radiating from the center, the other had a green tint. A trail of light freckles dotted her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. Some of the blood in her hair had turned to dark flakes. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
“It’s okay.” She wiped her nose, smearing blood across her mouth. “It only hurts a little now, like a pinch.”
“Are you going to tell?” He couldn’t help asking.
“No, I won’t tell anything. I’ll say what you want.” She sniffed, and then smiled up at him. He ached inside.
“Let’s run away,” he decided.
She blinked and nodded. He helped her out of the arroyo, and led toward Chichi Hill, the only feature he could make out from where they were. They walked in silence. He took hold of her hand. It was clammy and pleasant to touch. The sun sat just above the mountains when they arrived at the base of the hill. Cedar’s plan was to reach the summit and live there with Morning Blossom.
They entered the brush and climbed for a long time without finding the top. “We just have to go up,” Morning Blossom said, but Cedar was beginning to doubt there actually was an up. Wherever they turned something blocked them: clusters of cactus, a steep ridge of stone, thorny dense bushes. It was getting dark when they pushed through a line of scrub and found a brown wall with a window, topped by the edge of green roof. At first they were too scared to approach the cabin, but finally they found and knocked on the door. No one answered; the cabin was abandoned, the windows boarded. It was night now, and Morning Blossom, spotted with moonlight sifting through the high brush, held her face in her hands and shook. “Where are we?” she asked. Cedar hugged himself and shivered.
He took her hand and pulled her through the brush, no longer concerned with the branches and thorns scratching his skin. They seemed to be nowhere. Even the hill had disappeared. Then they broke through a wall of brush and stood in the bright light of the lopsided moon floating just above the southeastern plain. Their shadows fell across the edge of the road, almost where they’d left it.
Back at Morning Blossom’s place the silhouettes of the grownups moved on the bright skin of the teepee. Cedar and Morning Blossom sneaked to the faucet that poked out of the ground near the road and cleaned themselves with the hose. She gasped when he put the hose over her head. The dark flakes turned liquid and pale pink in the moonlight. He found the cut was about as long as a stinkbug and as thin as a pencil line. Other than her dress, which was lightly stained after rinsing, and the wet hair and clothes, there was no sign of what had happened. It surprised Cedar that so much blood could be so easily washed away.
At the canvas flap the shadows of the grownups stretched and shrank in the flickering light. Cedar replayed again the lie he would tell and Morning Blossom would agree with. He pushed aside the flap and all the words left him. The air was hot, smoky and sour. In the center two giant heads rotated, revealing white faces. They sat across from one another on either side of a plate of incense cones and candles. Both their heads were enormous balls of kinky hair. Kathleen’s neck seemed too thin to support such an orb.
“Where have you kids been?” asked Morning Blossom’s mother.
“We got lost,” said Cedar.
“Well, you better be careful.”
“Morning Blossom fell on a rock and cut her head. But she’s okay.” The lie sprang from Cedar’s lips, even as he realized it wasn’t necessary.
Her mother’s head quaked as she nodded. “You better be careful.” Morning Blossom threw herself on her mother’s lap, and wept softly. Cedar ran out of the teepee. His mom followed him and asked what was wrong.
“It stinks in there,” he said when she bent over him, blocking the moon with her hair.
The next morning after breakfast Cedar climbed Nose Rock and found Morning Blossom’s teepee gone. He ran all the way home, up to Kathleen, who was kneeling in the soil of her vegetable garden. “Morning Blossom’s gone,” he said, panting.
“Damn those rabbits,” Kathleen said. “I hate them.” The carrots were dug up and the lettuce chewed down to nubs. She seemed on the verge of tears.
“The teepee’s gone.”
She turned her attention to Cedar, frowned and looked out toward where Morning Blossom used to live. A sharp smile he’d never seen on her face before bent one side of her mouth. She looked at Cedar with eyes neither kind nor angry. Her hair was damp and last night’s curl hung in a spongy mass over her shoulders. She looked like someone he didn’t know, and he turned from her gaze.
“People like that are always just passing through,” she said.
Rain sat in the ruined
garden, eyes wide as Donkeyman’s doll’s, burying his legs
with handfuls of dirt. Kathleen said she was going to have to put a fence
up, and if that didn’t work, traps.