Sasha Morningstar legally changed his name to Michael on his eighteenth birthday in the Mendocino County Courthouse while holding the hand of his younger sister, Moonbeam Lark, who though thirteen and not old enough to change her name, now went exclusively by Hannah.
They had not been raised in the standard way of parents raising children. Rather, when he was nearly five, Sasha, now Michael, was taken by his mother from the apartment they shared with his father at 25 Sutton Place in New York, overlooking the East River, and loaded into the back of a van and driven by strangers straight across the country. He remembered that journey in pieces, like a flipbook: sleeping with his leg against his mother’s and his head against the van’s metal back door, and looking out the small submarine window at the sky and the tops of tall things in some eastern city; his mother racing out of a gas station in Kansas with an armload of boxes of Saltines, her hair a pack of snakes behind her head; stopping at the house of someone they maybe knew or maybe didn’t know in the middle of Nevada where they swam in a kidney-shaped pool until they heard coyotes and the sun was completely down.
Where he ended up shouldn’t have surprised him, but it did. Yes, his mother had often gone shoeless in the city, but the apartment they’d left had belonged to his father’s parents and was still heavy with their possessions: a grand piano, velvet curtains, a desk inlaid with gold. He had spent weekends on the window seat looking out at people and the bridge over the river and leafing through a set of encyclopedias.
It was dark and late when the van pulled in front of a series of small, hand-constructed houses in a northern California forest. He would later learn that the commune was started in 1968 as a conceptual art slash ecological project by a man who, at the time of their arrival on a Saturday night in 1973, was sitting on a deck surrounded by candles and crates of strawberries and snap peas that he was disentangling and putting into metal buckets, but slowly, so that each movement looked balletic. That night, he fell asleep on a long pillow near the man’s bare feet, which looked rough as talons.
Hannah née Moonbeam Lark was nothing then, just one step beyond idea, implanted but with little growth. She would come later, as would several attempts at collective money making: a vegetarian sandwich delivery service that involved ritual assembly in their communal kitchen space and then van drives into town where they would go door to door with lunches wrapped in wax paper. A forestry service where both men and women shimmied up dying trees with chainsaws and none of the appropriate safety equipment.
He didn’t like it always, but he was still all in. As he grew, he climbed the trees and did maintenance on the houses. He gathered moss for terrariums to sell at coastal art fairs. He picked blackberries by the ocean and helped convert them to jam on the woodstove. He watched his mother pair off with a series of men and then women and then men again, many of whom stayed for a few months only. He carried Hannah, when he was too small to do it at first, in a patchwork sling along the path that overlooked the ocean, and later she walked a few feet behind him while he pointed out to her caravans of sea lions sleeping as if dead on distant rocks. For some years, they were the only children, and then there were suddenly many babies. He forgot what little he’d known about the city, about buses that exhaled gray air, about his father, about concentrations of human-made noise.
What happened shouldn’t have surprised him. He was old enough to hear them planning, and he then spent weeks trying to convince his mother, Evelyn, to leave instead. She’d made him call her that for the first years there: Evelyn. Not Mom, not Mommy. Then she insisted he call her Seven, her maiden name though the patriarchy that required the switching of names when marrying as if property was ridiculous, she told him, and though Seven represented really her father and not her, she supposed it was as good a name as any, and she “preferred being numeric at this stage.” Seven, then, it was, and if he defaulted in the night to Mom, when he was cold and younger and needed to use the outhouse and didn’t want to go alone, she lay silent until he said it: Seven, help. And then she rose.
Their scheme, the foxglove, the nightshade, the loosening sleep as they were calling it. It was so ridiculous, he told her, so cliché. There was no other world, he told her, when they were foraging on an October morning, no astral plane, no mystical beyond, no living as a star among stars. There was solid human form animated by energy that, upon death, was simply and completely gone. His mother set down her canvas bag, sat cross-legged on a rug of pine needles, closed her eyes, and tipped her chin up without speaking. There were more than the expected number of ravens in the trees calling, and though the sun was out that day, the light barely made its way through the canopy.
He and his sister took the truck in the morning straight to the courthouse. It was the truck the older men used to drive the log roads and to wind inland at night to steal things from farms and vineyards. Sometimes they returned with live chickens in burlap and more than once an actual goat tied by rope to the truck bed.
He’d taken the bag of money from the drawer in the communal kitchen. Hannah, of course, had brought her bird book along with a lot of old and handmade clothes they’d realized were embarrassing and not right for a world where people wore pink Izods and Hawaiian print shorts, though not usually together.
After, on that whole drive, all the way to New York, they saw corvids everywhere, ravens and then, farther east, crows, and though neither would say it out loud, they both thought the birds were following them, shepherding.
He could remember reading something in a book about a world made new, and he decided on this as a mantra as they drove through the redwoods and then east, when the world went parched and colorless, and then trees again, and then suddenly all and completely orange. All of it in front of them: cities vertical with glass, employment maybe, a father, tan houses in rows in farm fields, love maybe, sex eventually, sadness of course, the future.
Evelyn knows every plant, plants more than people. Elephanthead lousewort in small amounts only. False Solomon’s seal berry edible high in vitamin C common in forests and thickets. Indian pipe/ghost plant white, stalky, edible, similar to asparagus but poisonous in quantity eat sparingly. Miner’s lettuce all parts of the plant, even the roots. Queenscup. Yes. Foxglove, no. Blue witch nightshade, no. Hemlock, no. Oleander no.
Evelyn every morning. Walk to the ridge. Eyes to the ground. Eyes up. Eyes to the ground. The grasses, the wild-growing flowers, she knows their names, each one, but she’s opted while walking for all the days, this one and beyond, not to name them, not to think of them with specificity. Resist that. Grasses, bent over. Not elegiac. Not adjective-laden to exist. Just grasses. Wind. Ocean. Every now and then moving in the water, a sea lion. Sea lions.
The cabin she shares with her son and daughter has windows made of the glass covers of old pinball machines. The sides are scrap wood girded inside with mud and felt. The outhouse is thirty paces from the front door. The roof is tin, and when it rains the three of them lie on the bed and close their eyes and listen. Life is so much lying down, getting up, lying down again. She can remember her son as a toddler, sick and wrapped in a cashmere scarf she’d gotten as a gift, her son lying on the window seat of the apartment she’d shared with her husband, sweating and then freezing and then sweating. She’d circled him with hot tea and chalky orange baby aspirin. Her worry then was a bag she dragged behind her always. She cannot muster it now. Used to be: next day, next day. Now: now.
When she walks from their cabin to the town, encroachment is not something she cannot think of. People in the town for a day or two days, a long weekend. They carry books with fresh bookmarks. They wear ponchos that have the appearance of being hand-knit but are surely bought from stores. They ogle the mist and laugh while eating nasturtiums off the vines. Like her life every day is the weekend life to which people aspire as a short term but then weekdays money, fluorescents, packaged meat. Ronald Reagan. She cannot not think of Ronald Reagan. His long cowboy-actor face. His swoop of shoe-polish hair. Near the Headlands, she comes upon flattened patches in the grass where some animal has spent the night, and she feels it her duty to lie down, too, to curl to the shape made there. Lie down.
The sky is a blend of blue and mist, and Evelyn has been all of these: Evelyn June Seven, Evie, Eve, Evelyn Masterson née Seven. Honey, Dear, Mommy, Mom, Seven, nothing. Evelyn June Seven wore pale blue almost exclusively and skated up and down the halls of her apartment building. Evie’s father owned a seventy-five-seat movie theater several blocks from their house, and she stood in the back and ate red candy coins and waited for the moment when there was nothing but two faces close to each other on the screen. Eve drank beer from the bottle while listening to men play trumpet in a bar with peanut shells on the floor. She didn’t need sleep. She didn’t wear cardigans. Evelyn Masterson served shrimp scampi for ten at the table that had belonged to her in-laws. Honey crawled from her single bed to her husband’s in the early morning when the new sun made a halo around the curtains. Dear made toast and tea to lay out on the Formica breakfast room table before the trains started taking suited men to newsstands and office buildings. Mommy was up in the night pulling at blankets and looking at the moon through windows. Mom was peripheral but needed when needed and not when not. Seven knew all the plants, plants more than people. Seven walked sometimes as if floating. Seven ate less each day. Seven made herself cloudlike with the clouds. She wanted less personness and more bird. Untether became her mantra. Untether. Lie down.
The last day is the last day they planned, to the letter. Foxglove and nightshade and oleander. The redwoods have a sheen of mist outside the fogged-over window of the communal kitchen. The plants root into each other underground in their secretive commensalist parley. She thinks she can hear it: their grasping, their bending. The people are all around the table. They have committed to talking little and if possible not at all. There is the human noise of drinking, of the bodies. The children go quickly. She can remember lying in bed with her T. S. Eliot poems as a teenager (“til human voices wake us”), her monogrammed pen, a gift from her mother, in her left hand. She’d always found it special that she was left-handed. It meant something, she’d once convinced herself. Nothing meant something. The western bluebirds cackle in streaks and spins around a cloud of ravens. She sees the blue and the black out the window like the rippling ribbons of dancers in a caravan. Her mother’s face lowers close to hers; she sees it, the powdery cheeks, the matte red lips. How obvious that this is what comes to her: her mother. She disappoints herself. The ravens loop up above the treetops. The bluebirds are nowhere to be seen. Oh, for the bluebirds. Two hundred yards beyond the tree line, the ocean pulls up and over itself again. Again. Again. And we drown.
The city, New York, Manhattan, is more than Hannah would have imagined had she let herself imagine things beyond mushroom soup in hand-carved bowls (again) / beyond maneuvering in the middle of the night to the outhouse with bare feet in the mud and pine needles (again) / beyond shitty evenings in the communal kitchen where men with gray beards affixed to their chins like entire dangling opossums pushed their thighs into hers under the table (again).
She and her brother camped the whole way, west to east. In the desert, with wind and scorpions and motorcyclists / in the mountains, where they were ill equipped for the weather and moved from their makeshift tent into the truck around midnight / in a farm field, where they ate greens from someone’s careful garden and slept with who knew how many cats in a barn full of gas cans and tractor parts / at the southern edge of Lake Erie in Geneva-on-the-Lake, which was not the most direct route but where the lake looked a little like their ocean and a woman with red hair brought them to her beach rental and fed them flown-in crab legs with melted butter and marveled again and again that it was the first animal they’d ever eaten. No animals, but: mushrooms when she was seven that made her think her hands had turned into twin bears and her face was sequins / or standing in the stream for meditation at 5 a.m. in just their underwear no matter what the temperature / or black beauties when she was ten that kept her awake for days, which everyone thought was funny or at least helpful because she swept every single surface, even the outdoor paths between cabins. The waist-length braids. The white clothes on Wednesdays. The naked yoga at dusk when the sunlight was lifting itself away from the trees. The vats of plain, cheap fabric they hand-dyed and hung from lines between the pine trees. The endless goat-milk yogurt with bee honey on the woodstove and then in mason jars. The nights in the summer where they lay in the open-air building in a hum of human arms and feet and heads as close as possible to the man they all called father who was not her father really and only really father to some of the babies, but still.
And then: Times Square is a brilliant onslaught. Coca-Cola, Midori Melon Liqueur, JVC, Taboo II Theater, The Harem, XXX. Maybe she will be a city person. Cartoony paintings of women mainly unclothed drop down the sides of marquees, and Hannah can think only of the hot springs they hiked to every month, all of the women together and naked in the water, breasts weightless and bobbing at the water line, and all of their long braids partially submerged.
Her brother gawks at the buildings. He leans his head back until he might tip fully onto the sidewalk. She doesn’t allow herself that. She walks purposefully. She looks straight ahead or at her feet. She tries not to think about the pink, hand-dyed/hand-sewn pants she’s wearing with a black coat they’d found at a thrift store in Pennsylvania. She sits at a bench along the stone retaining wall surrounding Bryant Park as if she has done it every day. She won’t give herself away.
People wear bright, patterned jackets, and they don’t greet each other, they don’t slow down to observe or wonder. The taxis and buses are orchestral. The only birds she sees are pigeons. Their necks flutter with ruffles of purple and green, and they launch up and around together in perfect spirals as if they rehearsed in alleyways to synchronize.
It will be easy to find their father. At least that is what they think. Though she claimed she’d shed her past entirely and along with it all of her sentimentality, their mother had kept a gold-twined stack of monogrammed stationery in a box under the bed: Evelyn Masterson, 25 Sutton Place, No. 12, and so on.
Her brother buys two hot dogs for them with what’s left of their money. A man moves slowly by on actual stilts that have been wrapped with rainbows of colored tape. Women in heavy makeup lean into each other and laugh. The fur collars of their coats blend. Their faces are that close. It starts to snow then, as if scripted, and she’s never seen it before. The flakes are just as she would have imagined had she let herself imagine things. If she didn’t care what people thought, she would open her palms in front of her body and watch the snow melt on her hands. At home, she’d seen ravens gather beach glass in a pile, methodically, and her mother said aloud: there is actual magic around us, and Hannah at the time hadn’t known whether to laugh or cry.
They decide to leave the truck where it is parked, though likely illegally, and walk to the building where her brother lived as a child. The sidewalks are papered with candy wrappers and flattened blue-and-white coffee cups and newspaper shards, and the snow is beginning to coat all of it in its white film. In front of Grand Central, taxis honk and idle. People are either rushing or standing and smoking. As they pass St. Bart’s she lets herself stop and lean her head back at the wonder of the dome and its tilework, the order and pattern of which are nothing like the patchwork cabin where she was raised. They walk past a huddle of men sharing a bottle, and then there is the river and the tan awl of the Queensboro Bridge, just as her brother has described it. The building they enter is simple, a brick rectangle with a green awning over the door. If she’d let herself imagine, she might have imagined something more ornate. The doorman requires some talking to, but eventually he makes a call and lets them into the elevator.
The elevator opens directly into the apartment on the twelfth floor with its wide marble entry, and there is the man whom she presumes to be her father. He has more hair than she’d expected and no beard, and he wears a blue button-up shirt and has his arms extended out toward them. He is actually crying, and so she wills herself to go to him because doing so seems right for the moment.
She does not miss her mother yet. She doesn’t allow herself that. She won’t allow herself that until years later when she’s lying in bed with some woman (again) / when she’s in that moment of after and waiting for something (again) / and she sees her mother almost like a cloud above her, her braids now encased with vines and mud and so much longing. The great tragedy of Hannah’s life will be this: she will hold herself back forever and for always. She’ll laugh at parties. She’ll mock her childhood. She’ll live in seventeen different apartments in the city. She’ll acquire bedsheets with people, shared pots and pans, strands of plug-in lights to wrap around window frames. She’ll hold other faces in her two palms up close to her own face. But she will never be able to love.
She will go through all the motions / she will be so good at going through the motions / she will. The whole big world.