Sue and Lissie in the strawberry patch.
From the time Heidi was old enough to walk, age 1½ to my 5, I took responsibility for her education in survival. The two of us were always outside, naked and barefoot, dancing on the blanket of apple blossoms, skipping along wooded paths, catching frogs at the pond, eating strawberries and peas from the vine, and running from the black twist of garter snakes in the grass. We lay in the shade under the ash tree, gazing up at the crown of leaves and listening to the sounds of the farm—birds calling, goats bleating, chattering of customers at the farm stand, and whispers of tree talk. There was human talk, too—about our farm. It was a bit more excitement than the locals could appreciate when, for example, one of our apprentices rode nude on a hay wagon through the sleepy—but not sleepy enough—town of Harborside. Earlier that summer, another article had appeared, this one a harder look at a movement that was becoming an increasingly controversial topic. The reporter commented that while many back-to-the-landers were serious about the move to the country, others "are leftovers from the escape culture of the '60s who were chiefly interested in smoking marijuana and sitting on the porch talking philosophy."
"Self-sufficiency," the article also noted, "proves too difficult for many. Marital stresses, for example, are exaggerated in isolated areas around the country."
Certainly, our isolated tribe was not immune.
On a humid-hot Saturday near the end of July 1976, the gardens were bustling as usual with apprentices and customers and vegetables needing to be picked. Baby Clara was strapped to Mama's back in Heidi's old sling, sleeping mouth-open as Mama cooked lunch, skin glowing and tan from summer. Our grandmother was coming to visit, and Mama needed time to clean the house, to hide from her mother-in-law the chaos her life had become in the past year. The scores of apprentices, visitors, and customers competed with the never-ending demands of the farm, leaving little time for family. Mama worried about Papa's hyperactive thyroid and about his having had breakfast that morning with Bess, one of the young and beautiful apprentices. Then there was mud that had been tracked in from the gardens, piles of laundry waiting to be washed by hand, and Heidi and me running around the small kitchen pulling each other's hair and screaming.
"One more scream, and you're out," Mama yelled, her mind tumbling over itself.
"Pull my hair, and you'll die," I said to Heidi.
She pulled my braid. I screamed.
"Out." Mama pointed to the screen door, sweat shining on her forehead from the heat of the wood cookstove. Around the stone patio of the farmhouse the daylilies panted their orange tongues in the heat. Rain had fallen the night before, and the air was heavy, as if waiting to rain again.
"I'm going to the woodshed," I said, marching away across the yard and climbing up the woodshed ladder to my perch in the loft. Heidi followed me, reaching up the ladder that she was afraid to climb alone. "Uppie."
"No," I said, but after a while she came back again with a little red boat in her hands.
"Come an' play with me," she begged.
"No," I said. "I'm busy."
Sometime after that I heard Mama calling. "Lissie!" She peeked up from below. "Where's Heidi?"
"I don't know."
"Well, come down and say hello to your grandmother."
My body unbent and shuffled backward down the ladder. It was a little cooler below, but no breeze. The swing hung motionless from the ash tree. I listened for words from the leaves. Nothing.
Then I heard Mama's scream.
A couple of apprentices were sitting in the cool of the gravel pit by the road when someone came running over from the campground.
"Heidi's fallen in the pond!"
I remember the silhouette of a woman coming over the rise from the garden.
"There you are," she said. Was it Bess? Nancy? Michelle? One of our apprentices, but which one? She bent down to put her hands on my shoulders. Her eyes were not right, too bright.
We Hear You!