Chapter 4. The News

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

Marisol heard the white couple as they walked up the stairs, the woman half a flight higher than her dude, talking about how the acacias had to be cut back. Their voices carried, silencing the spirit voice of Chris, who had been just about to tell her something important--about Marisol's stepfather and her mother, something he had observed. Now Marisol heard the dude on the hill.

"It's all sandstone in this area," he said. "Which means it's soft."

"But we're not thinking of heavy foundations. The plans I drew--"

Marisol heard them, though she could not see through the leaves and branches; this kind of oak is evergreen. She kicked her feet slowly. When they were kids, Chris used to tell her that Indians had bent the trees on this hill as landmarks. She'd told him he was full of shit. But now one of her favorite fantasies was that she was a Chumash, before the Spaniards (her own people, her real ancestors were Mayan or Aztec - and then mestizo).

"That's the very center of the property," the woman was saying. "Dead center. Where the street appears on the parcel maps."

"Maybe we should see who's sitting on the branch there."

"That oak, that's the one that can't be moved. It runs straight over Veronica Street."

"Can we apply for a variance?"

When they got closer, Marisol saw the woman was dragging one of the flying trees, the ones that had been falling on roofs.

Marisol looked down and saw the woman, who held the sapling awkwardly across her chest, her shining dark hair, two or three shades lighter than Marisol's. They were walking along the path, her path. Almost no one ever came up here, now that Chris was dead, not even her uncle Eugenio, who owned the place.

Still talking, they came closer. She sat very still, but then the dude had stopped and was looking up at Marisol. He held a shovel. He had a nice-looking face with downturned eyes and dark eyelashes. He looked like her stepfather, light-skinned, with a longish face and full lips.

"Hello up there," he said to her. "That must be a great view."

Marisol shrugged, looking down but feeling small all of a sudden.

"We're going to plant this tree." He turned his head in the direction of the lady.

"Who the hell are you?" Anyplace else and she'd never have been able to challenge them this way.

Then he hit her with the news.

"We are the new owners of this property."

Liars, she thought. She hoped.

"My uncle owns this."

"Your uncle must have gaven it up. We bought it this morning. I'm sorry."


The lady dropped the tree at her feet and glared at her companion. "Don't apologize!" she whispered sharply.

"I thought you were concerned about that root ball."

She cut him with another glare.

"My name is Caleb," he said, turning back to Marisol, "and this is Ayla", then waiting for a reply. "And you are--?"

"None of your business."

"Excuse me? I couldn't hear--"

"None of your fucking business," she said louder.

"I see," the woman said in a false chipper tone. "Well, we have an olive tree to plant."
Marisol hesitated.

"There's a curse on this place," she blurted.

The dude husband let the handle of his shovel drop to the ground, while his wife asked, "What did you say?"

"You heard me," Marisol mumbled.

"What kind of curse?"

"Against anyone who disturbs the soil."

The woman knew she meant it. She stared from below at Marisol for a long moment. Then she scanned the hillside before saying, "The property was for sale fair and square."

"Ayla, you don't have to have the last word." He was squatting, having bent down to pick up the shovel handle.

"We own it." She bobbled her head at Marisol like one of those Dodgers baseball dolls Marisol's stepfather collected. They'd always been creepy.

They dragged the tree out of sight, but Marisol could hear the hipster couple as they climbed the hill - it was unstable, the sound in this arroyo. Unstable and magical--and sometimes evil. There were echoes all over the place. Chris had showed her some of the sweet spots where your voice would come back to you. A certain spot on Husted Street, another on Swert, one at the top of Colima Street. There were places where you could hear a whisper from far away. And there were places where your voice was heavy and didn't carry past ten feet.

Marisol heard Ayla say, "I want to know if the whole neighborhood thinks this place is cursed, or if it's just that kid trying to yank our chain."

"What's the difference?" The dude continued. "She was trying to scare you, Feather. She's just a kid. But I bet it's true her uncle used to own this place."

Now Marisol knew it was true. It had been sold. She felt numb, but she also felt that she needed to get home fast, to tell everyone.

"That's the spot," he said. "Maybe in a couple of weeks we should bring out a grill and hand out hotdogs. Introduce ourselves. A little community relations couldn't hurt."

"We don't need to buy support. This kind of project is good for the community. You can't look like you're feeling guilty."

"Hot dogs wouldn't hurt."

"You think people around here want hot dogs?"

Their voices were cutting in and out as they followed Marisol's path up the hillside.
Hot dogs wouldn't hurt. Hot dogs to fight a curse.

In the distance a tree fell from a helicopter, the copter hovering while the black bundle dropped to earth. Then a scattered bark of canyon dogs. The copter moved a few hundred feet to the south, hovered again, and another object fell. Then again.

"Let me have the shovel," Marisol heard the guy say. "I'll dig it."

"Don't forget - the roots need to spread laterally."

As Marisol waited to hear more, rain began to fall slowly in fat, widely spaced drops. Above them the clouds had deepened in color and density. It would come down hard tonight.

After the white couple's voices disappered Marisol stayed in her branch, listening to the rain nick the oak leaves. They were hard little objects, those leaves. Her uncle had a nickname - she wasn't supposed to know it, but of course she did. There is so much to know if you are calm and you watch and listen. Eugenio's nickname was The Cossack, because he grew a thick mustache after he returned from fighting in Vietnam; people said the mustache made him look like a Cossack. His real name was Eugenio Lares Rodriguez. There were photographs of him in an old album with his fat mustache and a high-handlebar motorcycle. His face was smooth now, and he had short black hair. One time when a tax-auction sign went up, Marisol's mother said, "It does nothing but cost him money, but he's never going to lose that land. He always finds a way."

That's what they all said.

She inched down from the tree and then ran to tell the news.

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