“…an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my brain…”
-- John Donne
“Can you help me find my Seven?” Nina said, tugging at my husband’s shirtsleeve. She was small for five, waiflike in her oversized dress, but the pageboy haircut was perfect. Strawberry-blonde bangs hovered over elfin eyes and freckled cheeks.
Nina had just arrived at our campsite, nestled at the edge of a redwood forest. Along with her mother and two sisters, she was joining our family for a Fourth of July barbeque. Though we had never met her, I wasn’t surprised by her immediate connection with Ben. His gentle face and devilish blue eyes were an irresistible combination, one that I myself had succumbed to long ago.
Ben crouched down to her eye level. “Where do you think you left it?”
Nina looked to the forest and pointed, even though she had yet to set foot there. Our excitement was immediate. Lately, I had been warning Ben, telling him not to rely on my memory of Sevens anymore; I could no longer be trusted to remember for the both of us. And without children of our own, these opportunities were dwindling.
“We’d better go take a look then,” Ben said. Though it was only four o’clock, the imposing redwoods were already stifling the light in the campground. “If we hurry, we might find your Seven before sundown.”
I was envious that Nina hadn’t chosen me, but it was comforting to see Ben so optimistic. He winked at me as they slipped off before anyone could object. It was remarkable how upsetting such a quest could be for non-believers: though they had let their own ability slip away, they could still be jealous or suspicious of those of us who weren’t ready for atrophy.
We all welcomed Nina’s mother, my cousin, to our small gathering. Lila was still exuberant and fresh-faced despite having three little girls or, perhaps, because of them. Her freckled cheeks and tight, curly locks bobbed as she handed photos of her life around: the Jaguar XJ; the big new house on two acres with a pool; the trip to Europe while the house was in escrow.
“I hope you’ll come over for a barbeque this fall,” she said. “It truly is my dream house.”
I studied the photos while I kept an eye on Ben and Nina. I could see them hunting between the fiddle neck ferns and the cottonwoods, ducking then reappearing, over and over, exchanging riches plucked from the trail. Their laughter was faint but unmistakable, and the sanguine smile on Ben’s face was evident despite the distance.
It didn’t take long for the family gossip to start. In case anyone hadn’t heard, Lila’s sister, Grace, also a mother of three, was married to a class-A jerk. “She does all the cleaning, all the laundry, all the cooking. He never helps her with a thing. Not even the dog.”
Everyone nodded in sympathy, except for my dad, who relaxed in a beige lounge chair, his lanky frame dressed in Patagonia and L.L. Bean. In his lap, a copy of Make magazine was open to a story on how to make your own nails. “Is he still farming Thompson seedless?” he asked. “That can’t be too easy anymore.”
Lila continued, uninterested in agriculture. “At least he bought her a motor home, a brand new Commando.”
A hush settled over the camp. My mom cast an eye toward their aging twenty-seven-foot Aristocrat. “How long is it?” she inquired, as she set citronella candles around our site. The ritual guaranteed a mosquito-free happy hour, but the cloying smoke hung in our clothes for hours.
“It’s thirty-three feet.” Lila brightened at the thought of it. “Where’s yours?” she suddenly asked me, spinning her head around our campsite. I nodded toward our new ten-foot Coleman tent, plopped to the side of my parents’ RV. Just that morning I had decorated it with a strand of pinecones, buckeye seeds and wild iris gathered from the previous day’s hike. “Oh,” she said. “I mooch off of my parents sometimes, too.”
I forced a smile and looked toward the forest again, but Ben and Nina had disappeared. My adrenaline surged. How long before someone realized they were gone? No doubt Ben had convinced Nina to forage deeper into the woods. He always preferred mystery to any marked trail, defying my mother’s belief that he was the more sensible one, and now, with last night’s news, he had the perfect accomplice. Our dear friends, Annette and Harold, a sculptor and a painter who lived down the mountain in Santa Cruz, had come by to tantalize us with the tale of a Seven living in the hollow of a giant redwood. Only a rumor, mind you, but such an exciting one! If you were lucky enough to find a Seven, it meant the possibilities would be endless.
My mother returned from the Aristocrat with a tray of Bombay Sapphire martinis. The olives were skewered on toothpicks that sprouted tiny American flags. “Happy Fourth of July, everyone,” she said, toasting as she served. She winced slightly as she sat down in her matching lounge chair, knee pain from years of standing all day, teaching. Suddenly, she sat up. “Did you see that?” She pointed with her toothpick. “I think I saw that homeless guy who’s living in the forest.”
We all strained to see him, but only caught glimpses of mountain bikers whizzing by on a nearby trail.
“Homeless?” I asked. “Couldn’t he just be camping? Or hiking through on one of the trails?”
“Obviously, you didn’t see him. He’s no camper.”
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