The trail headed upwards now, and my breath came shorter. I paused to shift Chloe from one arm to the other. “How much further?”
“Not far. You want me to take her?”
I hesitated for a moment. Chloe didn’t like being held by people she didn’t know, but my arms were about ready to give way. “Okay.” I took the bedding from him and he took Chloe from me.
“Want a ride?” Leif said. He held her up to show her his smile, then gently transferred her to his shoulders. She didn’t peep.
“Harmony House,” I said. “That’s where you lived after the breakup?”
“Yes. The den of iniquities where my sons were forbidden to go.” It was the first time his voice had edged away from equanimity since we had arrived in Selu.
“What happened to it?”
“In the end, it wasn’t really possible to live in the world of cars and TV and telephones and at the same time build the kind of relationships we were trying to build. When you live in that world – and I think it’s even worse now, because of cell phones and the Internet – you’re bombarded with messages telling you to go drive somewhere and buy something. It takes you away from the place you’re in and the people you’re with.”
After twisting among the trees, we finally came to Leif’s hut, a thatched log cabin set in a mound. We had to bend down to get through the low entry into a dark, close space smelling of smoke and leather. In the beam of the flashlight, I could see that we were in a rectangular space with a fire pit in the center.
The walls themselves were made from notched logs, without a trace of a nail. Aside from a few books, a glass pitcher, two cups and a flashlight, everything in the room looked like it belonged in some living history reconstruction of a prehistoric dwelling. The only furnishings were a couple of stools and a bed hewn roughly from planks and branches. The covers were actual animal pelts, and I shook my head, incredulous.
Leif lowered Chloe from his shoulders back to his arms. “She’s asleep.” He nodded toward his own bed. “If you pull back the covers I’ll lay her down.” When I’d made it ready, he set her softly there, tucking a deerskin under her chin. It was no warmer inside than outside, and Leif got to work immediately reviving coals that he had covered with earth in the fire pit. In five minutes a cheery blaze was heating up the little room but also filling the air with smoke. I coughed. “It’s not so bad when you lie down,” Leif said. On the floor he spread burlap sacks full of shredded cane — the same stuffing he used in his mattress. On top of that, he laid blankets and deerskins. I went to move Chloe, but he shook his head.
“You guys cuddle up there,” he said. “I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“I couldn’t do that,” I said.
“Really,” he said. “I’m used to this sort of thing.” He stretched out fully clothed next to the fire. I changed Dante into his pajamas, then tucked him into Leif’s bed next to Chloe. It was barely the size of a standard double bed.
“Okay if I lie here?” I asked, pointing to the floor on the other side of the fire pit from Leif. “I can never get a minute of sleep with the kids in bed with me.”
“Suit yourself.” He handed me one of the burlap sacks of shredded cane. It made for a hard, lumpy bed, but I was determined not to complain. And, as Leif had suggested, the conical ceiling drew the air upwards, making breathable space closer to the floor. Dante dropped off almost immediately.
Lying in the glow of the fire, we went on talking for a long time about the old days. The saddest day in his life was the day he came home to find my mother had thrown a vase at my father. For weeks he tried to persuade Mom to give the group marriage one more try; if we could all just get away to the country, he thought, everything would get better. Even after Dad and Laura moved to the property full time, he stayed with her for almost a year. “I loved Sibyl more than any woman in my life, but I couldn’t be Ozzie and Harriet again.” And she had no more taste for conjugal experimentation.
So Leif started all over, at Harmony House, with five people who eventually became like new wives and husbands to him. His main regret from then was how little he got to see Ivor and Matt. “Laura called to ask for money a few times.”
The edge came on his voice again. “And I sent her what I could, even though we had agreed that she could have my share of the property in Mendocino instead of child support. But she would never think of letting the kids live with me after I left Sibyl.”
Harmony House disbanded after a couple of years, but Leif lingered in the Bay Area until the year Matt graduated from high school, just so he could see them for an occasional weekend. Both boys went elsewhere for college, and by the time Leif moved to Selu, he felt he was leaving very little behind in the Bay Area. That made it easier for him to plunge into life in Selu. He was one of only a handful there who had no outside income. Instead he worked full time schooling the kids and tending the vegetable garden.
“The job I really wanted was fire keeper,” he said. “The Cherokee used to have someone who’s sole occupation was to stoke the fire in the Gatuyi, night and day. People here decided we don’t have the resources to support one person doing only that. Personally I’d rather devote the resources to that than to plumbing.”
“What’s wrong with plumbing?”
“When I first came here, we used to bathe in the creek, first all the women and children, then all the men. And we did our laundry in big tubs, a whole lot of us standing around, talking and washing. Now we have showers and a washing machine and we spend a little less time with each other every week.”
“Can’t you spend the time you save washing clothes going on walks together, or having parties or whatever?”
“We could, but we don’t. Once people have the choice whether to get together or not, they have to weigh that option against every other option. For example, the option to spend more time working outside the community, to make more money, to buy more stuff. For a lot of people that’s irresistible. And then they’ve got one foot back on the same track they were trying to escape by coming here.”
Hearing him talk that way piqued in me a resentment that I didn’t even know I’d harbored. More than anyone from the old days, I could still remember Leif arguing about the righteousness of the group marriage. “I just don’t see why you can’t have both intimacy and hot and cold running water,” I said.
“Then you must have plenty of both in your life,” he said. It was impossible to read his expression in the dimness and the haze.
“I do.” He didn’t respond and in his silence I heard skepticism. Mentally I found myself arguing for my life full of defibrillators, echocardiographs, and pulse oximeters. I could personally name twenty or thirty kids who would not have been alive to experience intimacy or love or anything else if I and my colleagues hadn’t had a tool chest full of high technology to correct what nature had botched. And sure that kept me busy. I had no need to chat away with the village women while whacking dirty laundry against the rocks of the local stream. I saw people every single day, and I was involved in the most intimate details of their daily lives. Whether they could ever get out of bed and dress themselves, for example.
I knew that wasn’t what Leif meant. In truth, I wasn’t in touch with any of my best friends. I’d just had the biggest screaming fight with my son of his entire life. And my marriage was crumbling. Still, it was hard to see how I’d be better off without electricity. “Leif?” I said. He didn’t answer. The fire was starting to die down. I put another log on, but still I was cold under my two deer skins, and the pounded earth floor was hard underneath my back. I turned to lie on my side and then my stomach.
After an hour, realizing that I would never sleep that way, I got up and climbed into bed next to the kids. The mattress was uneven, but a lot better than the floor. A lot of warmth came off their bodies.