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Susannah Carlson

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Member Since: Dec, 2002

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By Susannah Carlson
Friday, December 20, 2002

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The helicopters came in early spring, raining malathion in yellow clouds. They came to poison the med-flies who had hidden in the backs of fruit trucks to cross the border into California from Mexico. They came to poison the med-flies, but they poisoned everything. That spring was the last time I saw a sparrow hawk hovering over a vacant lot in Palo Alto. There are still sparrow hawks, but not in Palo Alto. Not anymore. The hawks followed the crickets who left when their voices were drowned by those helicopters. Drowned out by their white searchlights and yellow poison, and their sound, like the sky being chopped to pieces, and the pieces falling.

I spent most of my time out of doors that spring. Hiding from the world in the tall grass in the vacant lot behind our house. Watching the sky framed in grass blades. Watching clouds and turkey vultures, redtails and sparrow hawks moving in and out of my green frame.

My mom once read a poem to me called “The Windhover.” I didn’t understand it, but I liked the way it sounded. It sounded smooth, the way cool satin feels against bare skin. She told me windhover was another name for sparrow hawk, and I knew why. I saw it once in the vacant lot. I saw a sparrow hawk hang suspended in air for five minutes or more, head cocked, watching a gopher hole. When it dove it seemed as if something that belonged up there, like a star, or a cloud, had fallen. I wished I had been born a sparrow hawk and could hang in the sky like that, falling only when I chose to fold my wings and plummet like a dropped stone.

I felt a kinship with the wild things that came to us sometimes out of the hills. It seemed as if everyone else hated them. I learned early not to show my joy and excitement at seeing a roof rat in the ivy behind our house, or a skunk on the back porch, eating out of the cats bowls. My dad threw things at them and threatened to put out poison or shoot them. He knew I would run away to live with the skunks in the hills if he ever hurt them. I’d told him I would. I wanted to anyway.

One night I met the skunks outside. I sat quietly while a mother skunk and six little kits padded on tiptoes out of the darkness. I was close enough to touch them. I warned them that they shouldn’t come around here because my dad was really angry and he might kill them. I didn’t speak, but I knew they heard me because they looked up at me, licking crusty cat food off their faces with pink tongues. My parents stood motionless at the window, unable to move for fear I would be sprayed.

The skunks, too, vanished in the terrible wake of the helicopters. Their five or six strafing runs over the house every Tuesday and Thursday night probably poisoned the food in the bowls. When the cats started getting sick we had to bring their bowls inside and feed them on the kitchen floor.

My dad slammed every door he touched that spring. The sound built up a charge in the house like static electricity. A tension so tight I felt something harden to glass in me, threatening to shatter. My mother stayed in her study. When I went to her I’d find her face down on the daybed. She’d tell me she was working and I should leave her alone. I’d kiss the back of her head and hug her, but she wouldn’t raise her face from the pillow.

One night while I was watching t.v. my parents started fighting in their bedroom. I turned up the sound and put my banky over my head but I could still hear them. My mom came into the living room. “If you had to choose,” she said, “would you rather go with me or stay with your father?” Her eyes blazed red and liquid, her face was a tight-drawn mask.

“I’m in the middle of a t.v. show,” I said. “I’ll stay here I guess.”

My dad came into the living room. “Don’t do that to her,” he hissed.

My mother knelt down and put her arms around me, resting her cheek gently against mine. My father stared down at us for a moment, then the anger on his face just drained away. Everything drained away, leaving him small and old. He lifted his glasses and wiped something from the corner of his eye, then he left the room.

We had no fruit that season. One day we had to go out and pick all the oranges, apples, lemons, and pears that hung ripening on our trees. We put them in burlap sacks and left them on the front curb to be picked up and incinerated the next day. I secretly hid one of each fruit in my closet, under a pile of winter clothes. When the inspector came, I hid in the bathroom, terrified he would look in my closet and arrest me for harboring fugitives.

We had to keep the cats inside for a week while they sprayed the trees in our yard. The cats hated it. They had never been housecats and they let us know it by making us as miserable as possible. The litter box my father bought for them remained empty. The cats preferred the potted plants and the carpet behind the couch.

Every day someone came to spray our trees. They didn’t knock, they just opened the gate and strode in like they were coming home. They wore white suits and white, masked helmets. They looked more like white spaces in the air than like people. I made them space creatures, I made them spies, I made them anything but real. But they were real. When we went outside again the yard was speckled with yellow, and we found dead baby robins under the nest in the apple tree. My dad wouldn’t let me pick them up and give them a proper burial. He put them in a plastic bag and threw them into the garbage. He also said I had to stop sucking my thumb.

My mom said she didn’t think that was necessary. She said she thought it would be okay if I washed it first. My dad said she should know better than to think a child would remember to wash her hands all the time.

“Is that right?” Mom said. “Well then you don’t know your own daughter.”

“And you don’t know what it means to be a parent,” Dad said. But my mom had already gone inside.

Up until then my parents had both been really nice about letting me quit at my own speed. They pushed just hard enough to make me feel like I might try it someday. I secretly believed I wouldn’t put my thumb away until I was old enough to smoke.

One day I sat down on my beanbag chair right in a puddle of cat pee. Something burst inside me. It was as if the world changed focus and I wasn’t who I was anymore. I was filled with an anger so huge and black it was all I was. I went to find the cat that had done it.

I’d known Tabby all my life. She was getting really old. She walked with slow and careful steps and stumbled sometimes as if she were drunk. Lately she had started falling off of things instead of jumping. I found her asleep on the living room couch. I picked her up by the scruff of her neck and carried her into my bedroom. I pressed her nose into the puddle in my chair and beat her as hard as I could. Then I threw her scrawny, limp body against my closet door. She lay there a moment as if she were dead, then she raised her dripping face at me and hissed. I scooped her up and cradled her against me, sobbing.

Mom said she was going on a business trip. She did that all the time. But this time it took her days to pack, and sometimes I would hear her voice, shrill and cold on the night air, shouting. And my father’s voice rumbling through the floorboards, shouting back. Except for the helicopters this was the only night sound now. The crickets had already left. I tried to fill their absence with music from a little radio I put in my pillow, but it wasn’t the same. Nothing was the same.

A thick, sweet smell began pouring out of my closet every time I opened it. I knew what it was and I was afraid my parents would smell it and get angry. One night I rooted through the pile of clothes on my closet floor, looking for the fruit. My hand touched something wet and a cloud of white flies rose out of the darkness into my room. I watched them moving in their ragged flight, up to the ceiling and down again. They looked soft, like goose down. I couldn’t understand why everyone wanted to kill them. I opened my window and stood beside it. “Listen flies,” I whispered. “Everybody hates you here. They want to kill you. You have to fly back to Mexico. You have to go back home.” I shooed them one-by-one out the window and watched them melt like snowflakes into the flat, black sky. “Fly fast,” I said. I could hear the helicopters coming, their whirring blades chopping the world to pieces.

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Reviewed by Kerstin 12/21/2002
This brought tears..

Excellent. Very moving.
Reviewed by Amor Sabor 12/20/2002
Top-notch work! I remember the helicopters when they sprayed malathion everywhere when I lived in San Jose. This is pretty much the way it was...fruit at a premium and life somehow unbearable at times. Excellent write, Susannah. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year for you and yours.

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