Author’s note: Welcome to what may be the first chapter of a novel or one of a few short fiction pieces. This is not a story for kids. (If you’re looking for a kids book, check out my novel Totem Magic: Going MAD on Amazon.) This tale is intended for teens and adults. I won’t say much more about it now, except that it hasn’t been edited and is still in the conceptualizing phase. I’ve just had some characters in my imagination who needed a home, so I wrote one for them. This is the edu-taining story of Dara Dance, a zealous conservationist, and a sarcastic bystander named Cody Seymour. I appreciate feedback, so feel free to give it. Each chapter will be accompanied by a relevant (maybe distantly but still relevant) video. The second chapter will be up soon. Thanks!
Deep in the usually quiet redwood groves of the Arcata Community Forest, I heard strained grunts and angry cries coming from further up the trail. As I approached the source, I spotted a small woman wearing camouflaged pants and a faded-black sweater with the washed-out word “Humboldt” across the front. She clung to a rope that was hanging down from a very large redwood tree, swinging wildly with her head thrown back. As I drew closer, I realized that it was not a rope at all, it was a thick English Ivy vine that was wrapped around and stretched up into the fog-scrapping branches of the towering tree. The woman howled the moment our eyes met, though some might say it was more of a tortured open-mouthed moan than a howl. I figured she was around my age, but maybe even up into her early thirties. It was hard to tell with that leg-stuck-in-a-trap expression on her face. Through clenched teeth she growled, “Don’t just stand there! Help me pull this down!”
Wondering if I should just keep walking, or maybe even run, I tilted my head to get a measure of the tree’s height. Was I bored and adventurous enough to participate in some good ole fashioned crazy project with one of insanity’s adherents? It would make a good tale at the cider bar, the day’s ultimate destination, where friends would be exaggerating their week’s experiences in an unadmitted attempt to story-top everyone else. This bit of good Samaritan buy-in definitely won’t need any truth-stretching. I could see me finishing my story, right before taking a sip, by saying, Yep, no need to make this shit up, I really did try to pull down a redwood tree with an insane woman this morning. She seemed to read my mind.
“Not the tree!” she shouted way too loudly while shaking her head disapprovingly and thrusting the vine toward me. “The ivy! It’s an invasive species. English Ivy sucks!” She arched her eyebrows and bounced her shoulders at me in a way that demonstrated that she believed that motivation would suffice, and that I was already on-board. “Now get over here, and help me pull it out of the tree!” She stepped back, slid her hand down the vine, and head motioned for me to take my position in front of her on the length that she’d just been holding. It was more of a command than an invitation. I nodded in agreement, and reluctantly took my place on the vine. I wasn’t sure why I was doing this. She wasn’t the same brand of crazy that I’d originally thought. And this could be a trap. But even if her transient buddies weren’t really about to come out from behind giant redwood trees and jump me while I held a vine like an idiot, my participation wasn’t even necessary. She had already dug the ivy up. A hole near the trunk of the tree and the shovel stuck in the ground next to it was evidence. The plant would soon wilt and die. I reached higher up on the vine, readying for a pull and decided not to quell her passion by telling her this was a waste of energy and time. And I didn’t want to piss her off either. “OK, good timing,” she said, shuffling her feet around for purchase in thick duff. “I was waiting for your help.”
I wondered if she meant “my help” or help in general.
“I’m Cody,” I offered over my shoulder, instantly regretting telling her my real name.
“Dara Dance,” she said as if forced. “You ready to help me or not?”
I almost chuckled out loud. Apparently, fake names came quicker to her than me. And wasn’t it obvious that I’m ready to help? I’m holding the damn vine, aren’t I? But I didn’t say that. “What exactly am I helping?”
She sighed impatiently and spoke in a fast monotone as if she’d explained this a million times. “Once English Ivy climbs to the top of a tall tree, it gets above the canopy where there’s enough light to make berries.” As she lifted her arm to point high in the tree, her dirty sleeve brushed roughly across the side of my face. She continued without acknowledging it. “Birds eat them and spread the seeds every time they drop a bb-sized load from their feathered fannies.” She dropped her arm to tug on the vine we were holding. “This one gots berries in it. I want to pull it down before the birds eat ‘em.”
“Got it,” I said, stopping myself a mere milla-second before mocking her by saying, “Gots it.” How had this crazy woman recruited me so easily? Did I really allow my participation just because I wanted to make fun of her? Checking my watch, I wondered how long this whatever-it-is might last. I hoped some scabies hadn’t rubbed off her sleeve and onto my face.
“At the count of three,” she said loudly as if there were many more than just the two of us. “One, two, and a big three!”
We pulled to no avail. “Keep pulling,” she yelled sensing my diminishing enthusiasm. Our feet slipped, and I fell back into her. She shoved me forward. “Switch places,” she commanded as she moved in front of me, pushed her sleeves up to her elbows, and motioned with her head for me to back up. I complied.
As Dara gripped the vine in front of me, I noticed that her sinewy light-brown arms ended in red-stained hands. It was not blood that stained them. The red was almost orange-ish and evenly distributed. It almost looked like it had been done ceremonially. Like some kind of crazy-lady ritual preparation for invasive species removal–hands dyed with metaphorical blood. We pulled and grunted more, but the tug-of-war was lost. The ivy won.
She let go of the vine and screamed, “Fuck!” so loud that I quickly scanned the trail for families and readied my apologies. There were none. By the time I turned back to her, she’d moved away and was rummaging through a large camouflaged backpack that I had not previously noticed. There were English Ivy vines spilling out of the top of it. Again I surveyed the surroundings. That backpack looked too big for her. She was maybe five feet, six inches tall, and though she was obviously fit, I figured that she could fit into that backpack twice. Dara had to have a much bigger partner somewhere. I hoped that person wasn’t as weird and demanding as she was.
“Now!” she yelled as she pulled a machete from the backpack. She raised it over her head and came at me.
I had often fantasized about how I would disarm and attacker and pin them to the ground while still being able to use my phone to call the police, but Dara had already swung the machete by the time I realized that I was not the target. With a loud thwack, she struck the tree and the vine dangling from it. A few feet of the plant hit the ground. The berries remained in the heights of the tree, where they waited their prophesized fate of beaks and feathered asses to whisk them off and deposit them to prosper in some unconquered forest. But they weren’t my concern. I had been less than a foot from tip of her swinging blade. She could have killed me!
“I am so sorry!” Dara dropped the machete to hug the tree. “I didn’t mean to cut you,” she whispered into the bark. Glancing at me and then back to the tree, she added, “I lost control again.”
My attention was drawn back to her red hands. I took a second to look at the rest of her more carefully, as well. Her hair was dark, almost black. I wondered if she were Native, Latina, Portuguese, or Middle Eastern. I was curious, but I’d never make the social faux pas of asking someone’s ethnicity as nonchalantly as inquiring about the weather, especially not a crazy woman.
Dara could have been a mix of anything. My deep-down guess was that she was a mix of thunderstorm and clear starry night. She was at once unique and beautiful and in a crazy and distant way. Her boots were the big black kind that wildland fire fighters wear. Her pants were tucked into them. I could see a hint of a tattoo betraying itself on the side of her neck, yet kept secret by the hood of her sweatshirt. I could barely make out a letter “J.” Probably the beginning of a lover’s name—a man or woman who matched her madness.
Dara was panting when she pulled her face away from the tree trunk and aimed hurt eyes at me.
“Do not ever buy English Ivy! I still can’t believe nurseries are allowed to sell them!”
“I won’t,” I promised.
She moved away from the tree like a drunk fairy in glides and wobbles and began to scan the ground in quick jolty head movements as if she were frantically looking for a dropped key. She’d forgotten about me.
“So… I guess that’s it then,” I said, suddenly confused what to do with my hands and shoved them into my pockets. “I guess I’ll be-”
I didn’t bother finishing my sentence. Dara wasn’t listening. She bent over and plucked a small seedling from the forest floor and declared, “Ivy sprouts!” in a tone like she’d just solved a long-debated mystery. She dropped to all fours and crawled around pulling tiny two-leaved seedlings that emerged from the leaf litter and dotted the forest floor like green chicken pox. Her face was too close to the ground. She was farsighted or locating the seedlings by smell. They were everywhere, but I hadn’t seen a single one before she’d made them all visible with the first plucking. After less than an awkward minute of watching her pinch them off and repeat “and another” each time she tossed one away, I started toward the trail.
“I hope you learned something,” she called out. I faced her to pass on a smile, but she was still scanning, crawling, and plucking. Her name wasn’t really Dara Dance, I told myself, and she probably didn‘t remember my name, but whatever. I wouldn’t try to engage her in further conversation. She looked up again as if she were going to command me to help her, and I knew that this time, I would not.
“English Ivy has no competitors or predators on this continent,” she said in the most sane-sounding voice I’d heard her use, but that normalcy ended as quickly as it had begun. “There is nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing that can stop it. Nothing eats it. Nothing beats it. Nothing cheats it. Nothing defeats it.” She stood up so fast that I flinched. Then she walked up and locked eyes on me. “Nothing but us!” Her tone was so dramatic that I almost laughed. I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from smiling as she continued in a whisper. As she spoke her fingers moved spidery through the air as if she was connecting her words with a web. “It has very little wildlife value and buries the native plants under its leafy tentacles—even young redwood trees are smothered to death this way. The plants that the ivy grows over and sun suffocate have evolved with and have relationships with the native insects.”
“Insects?” I asked in an attempt to follow her or frustrate her, I wasn’t sure which. I felt at once curious and antagonistic.
She instantly dropped her hands. I guessed she’d assumed I was being the latter. Her dark eyes spontaneously combusted with small flames of hate. Hate for me, it appeared. She shook her red fist at me and took a step closer. I put up my hands in twin stopping motions, she was totally in my personal space bubble. I took a step back until I was up against a tree. She took another two steps toward me. I wanted to tell her to back up without offending her. She was unpredictable and owned a machete. I wondered how on Earth I could possibly communicate rationally with an emotional mess: Excuse me, anti-ivy hippy girl, but can you like back up or something, please? You’re like… totally stepping on my aura and shit. But it wasn’t my aura that she was stepping on. Or was it? I don’t even believe in auras, but with her this close to me I couldn’t speak. Her bubble ate mine. I was now part of her reality-starved sphere. I couldn’t move, but I could wonder what would happen if I bent my knees enough so that our mouths aligned at kissing level. The visualized answer made me shudder: she would bite my lips off. I could smell her. She smelled like the forest. No, the forest smelled like her. She was still talking. “If the insects have no native plants to eat then momma and daddy bird will have nothing to feed their nestlings! Invasive species like English Ivy cause a severe reduction in biodiversity.”
“Right,” I said calmly, and searched my mind carefully for the words and courage to politely excuse myself. Courage?! Was I afraid of her?
“Right?!” she shouted while she finally backed out of my face. She shook her head in disapproval. “Right?!” she repeated more quietly with her hands out as if she were pleading. “Are you serious? That’s all you can say? I told you a way how we can save biodiversity, and all you have for me is a ‘right’?”
It was all I could say. I wondered if she were about to blame me for all the English Ivy in the forest. My internal jury’s decision was unanimous: this girl was extra crazy. I found the machete in my peripheral vision. If she moved toward it, I would get to it before she did. If I failed in that, I would run for my life.
Now she waving a red finger at me and hissed. “Even seed-and berry-eating birds feed their young insects! But those insects don’t eat just any plant. They eat the plants that they have evolved with. They’ve evolved special enzymes to breakdown the native plants’ metabolites.” She nodded at me and the tensed wrinkle between her eyebrows melted away. Apparently, she believed that I was finally receptive to her rant and was satisfied with that. “But they can’t eat this,” she said as she picked up the vine piece she’d cut off and waved it around. “They can’t eat this,” she repeated. “They didn’t evolve with it. They can’t digest it. It might as well be plastic.” For a minute it looked like she didn’t hate me anymore. Her eyes were questioning me.
“I understand,” I said testily.
The disapproving head shake returned. “No, you don’t. You probably have English Ivy in your yard!”
I did. I would never tell her.
“Listen!” she shouted suddenly more invigorated. She clapped on each word and spoke in a march: “Native insects eat native plants and native birds feed native insects to their native young! Got it?”
“No, you don’t.”
I noticed her eyes move over to the machete at then back at me. Was this the moment? I mustered up a disarming smile. “Well, I should be on my-”
“I don’t have time for chit chat,” she interrupted and mimicked a mouth talking with her one of her red hands before turning that hand puppet into a dismissive wave.
I’d walked maybe ten steps when in a sing song voice, she said, “Goodbye now.” I turned for a final wave to see her standing with the machete held up. “Goodbye now,” she repeated and waved the machete a little. “Maybe I’ll see you soon,” she added with an exaggerated wink.
As soon as the trail curved, and I knew she’d lost sight of me, I ran. I ran for what seemed to be a mile, but deep inside I knew I hadn’t escaped her. And on both sides of the trail grew more ivy. I hadn’t even escaped that. I snatched an ivy vine and ripped it off a stump. I walked a few steps and pulled another. Then another. I left an armload of ivy next to the trashcan at the trailhead.
Later that day, when I pulled my wallet from my back pants pocket to pay for a pint of my favorite dry English cider, the man in line behind me said, “Oh, looks like you dropped something.” I turned to see him pick a rolled piece of paper from the floor and hand it to me.
“Thanks,” I mumbled as I unfolded it I discovered what appeared to be a crudely made flier. Above the image of English Ivy were the words, “No Ivy League.” The corners of the flier were smudged with red. In my head I thanked Dara for not stealing my wallet. On the back of it I read plans for an English ivy bash where volunteers were being asked to meet at Trinidad State Park on September 14th at 10 A.M. to pull the invasive vine. It was two weeks away and ten miles from my house. At the bottom of the announcement was the name of the No Ivy League’s Ivy Bash coordinator: “Dara Dance.”
So it wasn’t a fake name per se, probably a moniker that extremists like her sometimes used. I folded the brochure and put it back into my pocket, left a tip for the bar tender, and held my glass up in a toast to the direction of Trinidad. “See you in two weeks, Dara.”