The new owners got out of their car a long block from the dirt mouth of Veronica Street. For two weeks, while they cased the hillside, they had parked in the same place, downhill of a city barricade and sign that declared the connecting street closed. Helicopter trees lay on either side of faded plasic orange-and-white Charlie horses, reinforcing the blockade. Ayla walked quickly, passing an open manhole cover without looking into the maw. Caleb stopped, olive sapling in arms, considering the rungs of the ladder that descended into the under-city, then turned and trotted to catch up--if Ayla could run ahead of herself, she would. In bed they were in sync, but upright, they existed in different dimensions of time and space.
They passed a block of old houses, ranged in a descending row. The wood-frame cottages had been constructed by the same builder and once had looked alike but now appeared as individuals, each with its own history and fate. The tidiest of them had a for-sale sign at the gate. It was white with dark green trim, and had mature rose bushes in front, with trunks as wide as a baseball bat. The last house on the street, before they reached the open lots, was fenced in chain-link, with a front lawn of mowed cottonweeds and St. Augustine's grass in the center of which was a picnic table. Old-fashioned stereo speakers faced outward from a bedroom. A weedy sandstone path was lined with animal sculptures made of reclaimed toys and other refuse: puppies and rabbits made of bits of metal and plastic.
They came to the end of the houses--and the end of the street. Here was a hillside with a cement staircase that cut in between mature acacias and walnut trees. It was only in the last year that the lower flight of stairs had been excavated. Even so, the old concrete steps remained buried in sandy, pale dirt on landings where the stairs turned direction, angling with the hillsides. Nature had worked quickly to repossess the property.
The stairs may have cut awkwardly through the water-run folds of earth, but a footpath leading off from the fourth flight of steps took the hill on its own terms: It went where the walking was easiest. It occurred to Caleb that the path was a better choice, even if it was winding, disappearing from view behind a pepper tree.
Caleb stepped off of the steps, onto the path of desire, and his attention turned now to the largest of the coast live oaks that grew on here. And fresh shoeprints in the sand.
Marisol dropped her backpack on the ground before she climbed first to the V-seat of the old, bent oak tree, then to the next great, firm growth. She used knots in the wood as footholds. The tree's main trunk was as wide as two trash barrels side by side, rising from the ground to the bowl where three main branches grew, and then more branches, like the one where she sat now, watching a lengthening trail of blood inch down her raised forearm. She waited for the blood to drip to the dirt below her, falling into the earth, and watched as it pooled briefly in the crease of her inner elbow, like a seasonal creek. As soon as she had seated herself properly on the branch, she took up some of the blood with her finger, licked it and spit down, in the direction of where they had buried some of Chris's ashes. On her forearm she had cut a delicate X with a knife she'd taken from her stepfather's underwear drawer. It stung, but this cut failed to produce enough blood, so she'd made a small slice over her eyebrow, which started to spill immediately onto her arm and then elbow crook.
Chris was Marisol's cousin. He was also her friend. He made the 46 (as the 46th street highlanders were known) leave her alone at the corner food market. He called her by her real name, Marisol, and said it with flourish. He had been kind to her in so many ways. And now she would offer him protection: She would place a death curse on anyone who disturbed his sanctuary, the place he went to smoke a joint, read books, and dream. The irony was not lost on Marisol, that Chris smoked here in secret, and now he was here in the form of ashes, in secret. But it was a salve, knowing that she (with the help of a different cousin, Evangeline) had placed a curse on anyone who disrespected the ashes. For the time being, they had agreed to silence, which was how Marisol wanted it, partly to avoid the disapproval--no, the fury--of her mother, who considered the world of spirits low class. And partly because Marisol believed that both silence and complicity were important parts of the operation.
But Evangeline wanted everyone to know. What good was a curse, Evangeline asked, if no one feared it?
A curse is a curse, Marisol had said. "It has its own power."
But Evangeline maintained that magic required a witness. The job of a curse was to inspire fear. In her grief at Chris's death, Evangeline had grown deeper, briefly; her outlook became broader than that of the thirteen-year-old who was already fantasizing on the minute details of her quinceanera. She became bigger than the girl who dreamed by the numbers: the white dress, an M.C. Since Chris's death she had made room in her life for Marisol as if her younger cousin were a friend.
"This Earth, where we buried him!" Marisol said, walking in front of Evangeline then turning abruptly so she faced her, "It belongs to Chris, it belongs to us. And to Santa Muerte." She enunciated crisply, in the patronizing manner of her teachers at school. "We can't let it get swept away. We have to fight back! With a real curse. You're talking about a warning," she said. "I say, fuck the warning."
The obscenity had it proper effect, cowing the older girl.
"If we tell," she continued, "they will laugh. And it will weaken the power of what we have done."
Evangeline stared warily at her unmovable cousin, stepdaughter of a firefighter, loner at school, in the gifted program with the geeks who got bullied. Marisol frightened her sometimes. The best course of action would be to go along, and let the matter fade. She knew already about choosing her battles. You didn't get to be a cheerleader at Garfield if you didn't have that skill.
But she disliked secrets. Losers possessed secrets. The people who harbored frightened her. They were mala gente ... like Jorge, Chris's older brother. Who asked one time that she come inside the house, he had something to show her. He had grabbed her at the elbow and pulled her with surprising strength. His house--and Chris's house--was pale candy-green, one of the wood-frame houses built in the 1920s and more recently covered in chicken wire and sprayed with stucco. There were two lemon trees in the front yard. They had grown higher than the house and shaded a dirt-packed front yard. Beneath the trees was split fruit.
"What are you afraid of?" Jorge had said, pulling her. His eyes were glazed, his shaved head starting to grow out, as if prickers were emerging from the desert of his brain.
Thanks to the Ayres, the mailman, who arrived and then lingered at the gate, she escaped, rushing past him, fast-walking all the way home. She told no one of the finger Jorge poked sharply at her vagina, her "front fanny," as her mother called it, her unheeded Don't.
Don't--she hated that word. It seemed to start every sentence her mother directed her way. And now here she was, trying to use it in her own defense, and failing.
"Okay, okay. It's a secret curse," Evangeline said now. "We won't tell."
She knew how to keep a secret.
Marisol spat again. The dirt below her was so dry it was powder. And it was waterproof. It covered the little drops of spit without absorbing them and rolled with them downhill, till they hit a rock.
Even Chris's mother didn't know her boy's ashes were here. Marisol and Evangeline, along with one of Chris's brothers and his best friend, stole some of the grit from the urn and brought the bits and pieces here in darkness and buried them in a small soapstone box between the oak roots in a flashlight funeral. The rest of the ash remained at the house, on the shelf next to Chris's baseball trophies. What was left of his body was distributed and re-homed much the same way as his possessions. People's memories of Chris scattered, too. He was decentralized, his memory broken into pieces and categories.
Funny, Marisol thought, that your living-life was like a committee that kept the parts of your body together. Then all the parts went their separate ways. And every word you'd ever said was liberated, or dissipated.
Here at the oak: this had been Chris's place - to smoke weed, to read his books.
Chris was shot in front of his own house by bangers from another neighborhood, the 46th Street Highlanders, or the Forty-six. His father was preparing Pacific dog snapper, which he had just caught that morning off San Pedro harbor, and Chris went out to pick a lemon from the tree in front when a silver-ish Honda Civic, with fading paint and undersize white-wall tires pulled up at the sidewalk. Someone asked him his name, but before he could say it he had been shot below the nipple. There were a pair of popping sounds, then three more. The car tore off, squealing at the corner of Ashton Avenue, the squeal fading as it distanced.
He thought someone had hit him with a hammer in the chest. He told Jorge he was okay.
"Nine one one. Someone call now!" Jorge screamed. People were coming out of their houses.
"Yeah, I think you should call someone," Chris said. His face was gray. He lost consciousness in the ambulance.
Now, at the downhill base of Marisol's oak tree was a small shrine that only four people knew about. There was a ceramic plate with Chris's face painted on it, this portrait had been done a year earlier by a ceramicist who had grown up in the neighborhood and still kept his studio on Ashton Avenue; there was an old, a burned-down votive candle in a glass jar, dried stems from old bouquets lay on the ground amid a scattering of stones. One person had strung a small aluminum cross on a long piece of orange yarn around the base of the tree--the yarn had slipped to the ground and the cross now lay on one of the oak's roots.
There was a larger, more consistently curated, shrine at Chris's house. But while most people's memories of him decomposed, Marisol devoted time specifically to thinking about Chris, and her memories did the opposite: they turned ornate. The more she tried to keep them pure, but repetition of thought--and tiny revisions--led to artifice. She built him up and up and up.
She spoke to him each day. She told him everything. She told him how Evangeline called her on the phone sometimes, and asked Marisol for help with her homework, for her government class or math. In Marisol's talks with Chris, she spilled Evangeline's secrets. They'd laugh about it together, Chris out there with Santa Muerte and Marisol in the oak tree.