Big Sur, California
The fog was as thick and white as cotton batting, and it hugged the coastline and moved slowly, lazily, in the breeze. Anyone unfamiliar with the Cabrial Commune in Big Sur would never know there were twelve small cabins dotting the cliffs above the ocean. Fog was nothing new here, but for the past seven days, it had not cleared once. Like living inside a cloud, the children said. The twenty adults and twelve children of the commune had to feel their way from cabin to cabin, and they could never be sure they’d found their own home until they were inside. Parents warned their children not to play too close to the edge of the cliff, and the more nervous mothers kept their little ones inside in the morning, when the fog was thickest. Those who worked in the garden had to bend low to be sure they were pulling weeds and not the young shoots of brussel sprouts or lettuce, and more than one man used the dense fog as an excuse for finding his way into the wrong cabin at night–not that an excuse was ever needed on the commune, where love was free and jealousy was denied. Yes, this third week of summer, everyone in the commune had a little taste of what it was like to be blind.
The fog muffled sound, too. The residents of the commune could still hear the foghorns, but the sound was little more than a low moan, and it wrapped around them so that they had no idea from which direction it came. No idea whether the sea was in front of them or behind.
But one sound managed to pierce the fog. The cries came intermittently from one of the cabins, and the children, many of them naked, would stop their game of hide and seek to stare through the fog in the direction of the sound. A couple of them, who were by nature either more sensitive or more anxious than the others, shuddered. They knew what was happening. No secrets were ever kept from the children here. They knew that inside cabin number four, Rainbow Cabin, Ellen Liszt was having a baby.
In the small clearing at one side of the cabin, nineteen-year-old Johnny Angel split firewood. The day was warm despite the fog, and he’d taken off his Big Brother and the Holding Company sweatshirt and hung it over the railing of the cabin’s rickety porch. Felicia, the midwife, was inside with Ellen, boiling string and scissors on the small wood stove, and he told himself they needed more firewood, even though he’d already chopped enough to last a week. Still, he lifted the ax and let it fall, over and over again, mesmerized by the thwack as it hit the logs. Every minute or so, he stopped chopping to take a drag from his cigarette, which rested on the cabin railing, and he could feel his heart beating in his bare chest. The hand holding the cigarette trembled–from the strain of chopping wood, he told himself, but he knew that was not the complete truth. He winced every time a fresh shriek of pain came from the cabin’s rear bedroom, and he was quick to pick up the ax again, hoping that the chopping would mask the sound.
When would it be over? The pains had started in earnest in the middle of the night, and as he and Ellen had planned, he’d run-stumbling in the darkness and the fog–to the Moonglow Cabin to awaken Felicia. Felicia had grabbed her bag of gauze and phisohex and other birthing paraphernalia and returned with him to Rainbow, and she’d held Ellen’s hand, speaking to her in a calming voice. It had shocked him to see Ellen in the glow of the lantern. She looked terribly young, younger than eighteen. She looked like a frightened little girl, and he felt unable to go near her, unsure what to say or how to touch her. How to help. Her face was sweaty and she was gulping air. Johnny was afraid she might throw up. He hated seeing anyone throw up. It always made him feel as though he might get sick himself.
He’d left the two women together and walked outside to the woodpile. He had not known it would take so long. How many hours had passed? All he knew was that he was on his second pack of Kools, and the menthol was beginning to make his throat ache.
Felicia had asked him if he wanted to be in the room with Ellen, and he’d stared at her, wild-eyed with surprise at the question. Hell, no, he didn’t want to be in that room. Now he felt like a coward for declining the offer. He knew that some men were fighting for the right to be in the delivery room these days, and that two of the men here at Cabrial had stayed with their women while they delivered, but he was not like those men. He couldn’t imagine being any closer to Ellen’s pain and fear than he was right now. Besides, that was no delivery room Ellen was in. She was lying on the old double mattress on the bare floor in the tiny bedroom they had shared for the past six months, her butt resting on newspapers, which Felicia claimed were made sterile by the printing process. Felicia was no obstetrician. She was not even a real midwife, but merely the mother of four kids who were, right now, playing hide and seek in the fog.
When he and Ellen had first talked about it, the idea of Felicia delivering their baby had sounded fine, even appealing; after all women used to help other women deliver babies all the time. But now that it was happening, now that Ellen’s screams made the hair on the back of his neck stand up, many things about the commune that had previously sounded appealing seemed ludicrous. His parents had rolled their eyes in a disgusted resignation when he told them that he and Ellen were moving into a Big Sur commune. He told them about the large stone cabin that housed a common kitchen and huge dining room, where the commune residents took turns cooking and cleaning up and doing all the other tasks that were part of living together in a group, and his mother had asked him why he never bothered to help her cook and clean up. His parents scoffed at the names of the cabins—Rainbow, Sunshine, Stardust-and they showed real alarm when he told them there was no phone anywhere on the commune. Then they threatened him: If he dropped out of Berkeley and moved into the commune, he could expect no more money from them for school or for anything else, ever. That was fine, he said. There was little need for money in the commune. They would live off the land. They would take care of each other.
Right now, he would give just about anything to have his mother with him. She had no idea he was about to become a father. Wouldn’t she be mortified to know that her first grandchild was being born this way, so far from medical care, not to mention, out of wedlock? Johnny could imagine what she would say about the ritual that would follow the birth. Felicia would take the placenta and bury it somewhere on the commune grounds, planting a tree, a Monterey Cypress, above it, tying the baby’s spirit to this beautiful place. Johnny loved the idea, despite the fact that he had not even known what a placenta was before moving here.
The thirteenth child. He was adding freshly split wood to the pile by the cabin porch, when it suddenly occurred to him that his son or daughter would be the thirteenth child on the commune, and although he was not ordinarily superstitious, that thought filled him with fear. He didn’t want his kid to start out with the deck stacked against him. Lighting another cigarette, he wondered if he and Ellen had treated this whole pregnancy as too much of a lark. They’d thought about how the baby would look. They would never cut his hair. They would let him run around naked, if that’s what he wanted. He’d never be ashamed of his body. He-or she—would grow up here in the Cabrial Commune, free of the stifling rules and restraints of the rigid world outside, being taught by other adults who shared their values. They’d thought about names: Shanti Joy, if it was a girl, and Sky Blue if it was a boy. He’d imagined his son or daughter one day going to school in the northernmost cabin, where two of the women and one of the men spent most weekdays teaching the commune’s children. It had sounded like the perfect way to live. Now he feared they were playing with fire.
His arms aching, he lit another cigarette and sat down on the porch step just as Ellen began to wail, and he squeezed his eyes shut against the sound. Did he love Ellen? She’d looked like a stranger to him when he’d brought Felicia back to the cabin with him. A young girl, glistening with perspiration, strands of her dark hair stringy around her face, her body taking up far more than her share of the mattress. God, she’d put on a lot of weight. She was going to end up looking like Felicia, like a big earth mother type with long, frizzy graying hair. Ellen already had the bones for it. He growled at himself.Shouldn’t matter. Looks shouldn’t matter at all. He’d probably look like hell himself if he were in her position right now. He was a son of a bitch for even thinking about it.
Crushing the butt of his cigarette beneath his sandaled foot, Johnny stood up. He ran his hand over his dark, sparse beard, the beard of a boy, not a man, and stared into the fog. If the day had been clear, he would have been able to see the ocean from here, beyond a few of the other cabins, beyond where the cliffs plummeted down to the sea. Today, though, his gaze rested on nothing more than drifting clouds of cotton.
He became aware of the silence almost instantly. The wailing, the moaning had stopped, and he turned toward the cabin door. Was it finally over? Shouldn’t the baby cry or something?
He heard the rapid pounding of footsteps across the splintery living room floor of the cabin, and Felicia pushed open the screen door. Her face was flushed, and she looked like a wild woman.
“Get help, Johnny!” she said. “The baby’s not breathing. Get that woman who came last night. Penny’s friend. Carlynn. She’s a doctor.”
He turned and ran in the direction of Cornflower, Penny’s cabin, hoping he’d be able to find it quickly in the fog. He’d managed to find her cabin in the middle of the night several times during the past couple of months, when Ellen had encouraged him to go to the older woman for sex, since she had not felt up to it, and sure enough, his feet seemed to know the way.
He remembered seeing the new woman in the dining room the night before, but he hadn’t known her name. She was an old friend of Penny’s, someone had told him, just here for a visit. He’d found himself staring at her. She was a small and slender woman with large blue eyes and shoulder-length blond hair that framed her face in an uncombed, unkempt, and utterly appealing way. She was probably in her thirties, nearly his mother’s age. But she didn’t look like anyone’s mother. Nor did she look like a doctor.
He burst into the living room of the cabin to find Penny and Carlynn sitting on opposite ends of the old sofa, sewing. They looked up at the sudden intrusion, hands and threaded needles frozen in midair.
“The baby’s not breathing!” he said.
In an instant, Carlynn dropped her sewing and ran toward the door. He and Penny followed close behind.
“Which way?” Carlynn called as she stepped into the fog.
Johnny grabbed her arm and ran with her toward Rainbow, but he stopped short at the front step of the cabin.
“In there,” he said, pointing.
Carlynn wrapped her hand around his wrist and nearly dragged him up the steps with her.
“Your girlfriend will need you,” she said, and he knew she was giving him no choice.
The inside of the cabin was hot from the wood stove, the steaming air hitting him in the face as he ran with Carlynn through the living room and into the bedroom. Ellen was crying, shivering as if she were cold, and she reached a hand toward him. A strange scent, a mixture of seawater and copper, filled his head and made him feel dizzy, but he sat down on the bed next to Ellen. Holding her hand, leaning over to kiss her damp forehead, he felt a tenderness inside him that was so sudden it made his chest ache and his eyes burn. He kissed her fingers, rubbed her arms. He was a weak and stupid idiot for making her endure this alone, he thought as he bent over to hug her. He should have been with her throughout the whole ordeal.
Her legs were still spread, her feet flat on the mattress. From where he sat, Johnny had a clear view between her knees of Felicia and Carlynn hovering over something. His child. The thirteenth child.
“The cord was wrapped around her neck,” Felicia said to Carlynn.
Carlynn nodded. She leaned over the infant and puffed into the baby’s nose and mouth.
Johnny waited for the cry, but it was only Ellen’s weeping that filled the room.
Carlynn puffed some more, and then Felicia sat back on her thick haunches, tears in her eyes.
“She’s gone,” she said, touching Carlynn’s shoulder. “She’s gone.”
“No!” Ellen wailed, and Johnny leaned over to press his wet cheek to hers.
“Shh,” he said.
Carlynn lifted the baby, and for the first time Johnny could see the infant, her tiny arms flopping lifelessly at her sides, her skin a pale, grayish blue. Carlynn held the baby in a strange embrace, her hands flat against the infant’s chest and back, her lips pressed against the bluish temple. The woman’s eyes were closed, her lashes fluttering slightly against her cheeks, her breathing slow and deep, and the room grew still. Ellen stopped crying. She lifted herself to her elbows to be able to see better, and for a moment, Johnny wondered if Carlynn were mentally ill. What was she doing?
Carlynn drew in a long, deep breath, then let it out in a slow wash of warmth against the baby’s temple. Within seconds, the infant let out a muted whimper. Johnny listened hard, praying for another sound from his child. Carlynn breathed again against the baby’s temple, and suddenly a cry filled the room. Then another. The baby grew pink between the woman’s hands, and in the hushed room, she wrapped a piece of an old flannel blanket around the infant and handed her to Ellen.
Johnny leaned over to nuzzle his woman and his child, a wrenching ache of love and gratitude in his chest, while outside the cabin, the fog rose into the sky, and for the first time in a week, Big Sur was bathed in sunlight.