Caleb could feel Ceci watching as he made his way down the steps. He wanted to turn, to try again to make his case, with a glance if that would work. But for once he stopped himself. What case did he have to make, after all? She liked the open fields and walnut woods that spread out below her house. What did he have to offer that would compensate for what he and Ayla were going to do to the fourteen acres here? Convince her that a better world was being engineered, no, enacted in her front yard? Convince her that she should sacrifice her home - that is, the fields immediately around it - to make the world a better place?
Nothing would compensate. But he could show her that he really saw the place. He could show he understood what they were taking. More importantly, he could take a close look at the place before the bulldozers came. He had turned off the staircase and onto the dirt track that followed the curve of the hillside. A click click click in his mind working at odds with the rhythm of his feet, shaking it out. He would do his working documentation for Ceci. And on his own, he'd create a second set of photographs, and these he would put together into a book. The idea quickened in his mind as he made his way downhill, regarding the place in his new way. The scene that now surrounded him was no longer the place where Ayla was going to build her houses - instead he saw a fabric of hills that had been shaped, written, slowly over time, through the efforts of people and through growth and decay, and it was on the eve of transformation, unknowing. Every volunteer shrub, crumbling sandstone boulder, and scrappy patch of desert buckwheat was now imbued with a new kind of integrity. The idea of ownership seemed absurd.
He began to take pictures. It was a perfect day for photography: overcast. The big coast live oak, he thought, that was one place to start. It did not occur to him that at heart his new documentary project was at odds with the new community he and Ayla would build.
The girl squatted beneath the tree, the same child who had told them to fuck off when Caleb and Ayla came to plant the olive sapling the day before. Caleb walked toward her, expecting her to look up, but she was absorbed with a little bottle she held over the ground, and she was singing quietly to herself. The wind picked up, whishing some of the dried oak leaves toward her and making the tree sing with her. She didn't notice as Caleb walked closer.
He watched as she took the small brown bottle, unscrewed the cap and poured some dark liquid onto the ground. She moved around the tree trunk, but stayed beneath the branches.
"Hey there, didn't I meet you yesterday?"
Her eyes jumped up, her shoulders jerking toward him. She held the bottle in front of her as though it offered protection.
"Weren't you here yesterday?"
"What are you doing?"
A long pause.
"I am putting a curse on this land."
"A curse. Yes, you mentioned that yesterday." Caleb waited to see if she would reply, but she didn't. She held her bottle tightly, out-waiting him. "What kind of curse?"
She stared at him.
"Would it be like a garden-variety curse, or is there something specific?"
Now he could really see her thinking. His focus sharpened. The girl had a long, straight nose, a few freckles on light skin, black hair, black-black almond-shaped eyes.
"I mean," he said, "Are you putting a curse on this fabulous tree, which looks to be what five hundred years old?"
"It's a curse on the land, like I told you."
"Why the land? Why not the people who use it?" Could he ever shut up?!
"This curse is for the land," she revised her syntax. "If you upset the land, the curse will be on you."
Caleb kicked the dried oak leaves at his feet. "So when does the curse start? Is it immediate? Is there a time frame?"
"It's bad luck to ask questions about a curse."
"No it isn't."
She said nothing, looked at him as if he were a rat in a glue trap.
"Hey, do you mind if I take a few pictures of you?" He started taking his camera off his shoulder.
"Yeah," she said. "I mind."
"There are trees everywhere these days. Do they get a lot of them up here in your neighborhood?"
The girl did not answer. She held her bottle tight in one small hand and stared at him. She held her ground.
Caleb left, shedding morning glory seeds, but there was an uneasy feeling sticking to him like aftermath. Once again, he felt himself watched as he departed, unwelcome.