portion of the artwork for Wendy J. Fox's short story

The Center of the Circle
Wendy J. Fox

In the commune where I had grown up in, left, and then returned to, The Circle, my co-inhabitants complained about the way things were changing; they complained about our nation’s political climate, they complained about the planting seasons, how the seasons were so much less predictable than years past, and they complained about the mice that were slinking through the outhouses, through the gardens. There had been a few years without a good killing freeze, so critters were abundant. I didn’t like the mice either, but the complaining, it just wore me out.

* * *

The entire autumn after I’d come back to The Circle from Denver after losing my office job—the job that had seemed liked such a betrayal to my parents, to my community, but that suited me nonetheless—I slept in Jay’s school-bus house. We didn’t always share the bed. That season, he was in love with me and I was in love with him, but I needed space, so sometimes I curled up in the softness of the old sofa pushed against the windows. He disliked it when I didn’t default to him like I had when we were children, when we used to squeeze our bodies into a single sleeping bag in the grass. I had never planned on returning to his place, so some kind of permanence with Jay had never even crossed my mind, and I didn’t want to stay with my parents.

How could I tell him that finding one another in adulthood was so unexpected. How could I tell him I didn’t expect it to last.

* * *

I’m not sure what I wanted out of my homecoming, but it was harder than I had thought it would be. I saw how much older my parents were, how despite the organic food and the crystal-clear water of a mountain town, sun exposure and subsistence work and financial stress, though they’d never admit it, had aged them.

I had known there wouldn’t be space for my things, my city things, which was why I’d left most of them behind in Denver, but I also didn’t know how firmly my family and the larger community had closed around the space I’d left open. Most of America expects their children will go out into the world, but I had been expected to stay, and I didn’t realize how much of a wound I’d left, how thick the scar was.

Like everyone else, I filled my days working the property, and I signed up for the hardest jobs. My hours at my job had been mostly filled up with screen time—typing away at the spreadsheets that filled my monitor. I wasn’t sure if I had wanted to prove that the city hadn’t made me soft or if I thought I needed to do this to show commitment, but the city had made me soft. There were some nights that, while I wanted Jay, my body was too sore to comply. Even when I felt the slick of heat between my legs, I’d sink into his sofa crammed into the school bus, up against the row of passenger side windows, and I’d fall asleep. Mornings, the stickiness was still there, but Jay was already up, off to some chore, and I needed something stronger than herbal tea to get me through the morning.

He said I could sleep in the bed even if we weren’t going to make love, but I hated that expression, make love, and I couldn’t really sleep with him next to me anyway, and the couch was fine. The couch helped me at least pretend to keep a little distance.

One of the jobs I volunteered for was digging a new hole for an outhouse. I made a perfect square eight feet deep. I brought a small ladder with me into the pit, and a five-gallon bucket. When the bucket was full, I climbed the ladder and walked the dirt near one of the compost piles in the gardens. The wet earth smell was strong. It could have been millions of years since it had seen sun. As I got deeper in the hole, I’d stopped seeing even earthworms, and the soil felt desolate, perfect to piss on.

My entire body ached from the digging and from being up and down on the ladder with the bucket, 50 pounds of dirt straining my arm, switching the bucket to the other arm halfway up the ladder. I had more than enough cash from my savings to rent a small digging machine, which would have made the project last a day. Instead, once the excavation was finally done, I bored a hole in the side of the hole and fitted it with pipe for a vent for the pit. I had hated the dull shovel, and I hated trying to tunnel through the dirt with a hand-cranked auger for the vent. I also hated trying to ram the pipe through the passage I’d made, but I finished it.

I wondered what I was doing, back in this place.

Jay helped me move the frame of an overflowing outhouse to the new site, and while he secured the frame to the ground, I filled in the old outhouse hole with layers of ash from our woodstoves to help with decomposition, and layers of dirt from the new hole. I sprinkled columbine seeds on top. I was sweaty and tired of smelling dirt and shit, tired of smelling like dirt and shit.

* * *

What was this return, I wondered. The community hadn’t asked me; I’d been dismissed from my job in the city and I had decided to go to where I thought home was. I thought they would welcome me. I suppose they did, in their way.

* * *

My parents lived in one of the few wood-framed houses in The Circle, one of the earliest dwellings, and their tenure in the community had earned them access to luxuries: the telephone that was always on the fritz and shared with many others; doors that closed; their own kitchen, even though they were generous about sharing it; they also had a deep freeze that was a serious draw on the solar electricity, but no one complained because my folks never complained if something was missing from the deep freeze, not that they would have used a word like missing. They weren’t so old, but they were elders now.

They’d come to The Circle in their early 20s, seeking a different life. They’d both come up around Chicagoland, but didn’t meet until the same pickup truck scooped them up, my mom just before Davenport, Iowa, and my dad just outside of it. From there they had another five hours in the bed of a rattling Ford until they were dropped off in Omaha, and by that time their meeting had started to seem more like destiny—what were the chances, they had told me they’d wondered, that two kids both on their way west were offered a ride by the same guy along I-80. I didn’t say I thought the chances were actually pretty strong, with so much rural road and really only one direct way to keep going, but for them, hitchhiking together, the miles softened. It was easier for my dad to get a ride when he was traveling with a woman as it vetted him in a way, and it was less terrifying for my mother to accept a ride when she was traveling with a man because it gave her some implied protection.

It was summer. They’d both dropped out of college, and neither had a definite plan of where they would stop; they were both just heading to rough ideas picked from a map, into the wide expanse of sky, toward the mountains; my mom thought she might try for the West Coast, but the Rockies jutting up off of the plains had stopped her, just as they had stopped many travelers.

In Colorado, when they folded their thumbs back into their palms, they were seeing how the summer storms had soaked the foothills, and they saw how the hillsides were turning a violent green.

It was in the first weeks, with dripping trees bisected by patches of prickly pear, when they were dropped off on a side road, making their way toward the community they had heard about, that my mother understood she was pregnant. Another half day and they found the place that would become their home. In the first minutes, to hear them tell it, they were surrounded by bounty—they were fed herb salads from the garden, Palisade peaches, smoked venison. They were given clean bedding after bathing in the cold spring. The ladies wondered aloud if my mother might be with child, because her breasts were so plump on her slight frame. She was surprised the women were so attuned to her body, already, before she could even remember all of their names. She nodded to them. They were right.

Then they washed and braided her hair, made her a crown of flowers, put their hands on her heart and her belly. They folded her in.

Still, this joy did not stop them from later cooking a tea, when my mother had missed her second moon and she had confided, to Barb-Ann first, and then to the group, that she wasn’t ready to be a mother. She wasn’t even close to ready.

Then she chugged pennyroyal laced with parsley and oranges that the women brought to her. The older ladies had brewed this concoction before, many times, but with my mom, it didn’t stick. It wasn’t a secret she’d tried to abort me, and she had told me not out of malice or sadness, but as a warning: there are so many chemicals in our bodies now, the old herbs don’t work as well. You need to know, for your own health.

The women tipped their cups to my mother’s lips, as many hands on the vessel as possible, making light of heavy work, doing their best—with so many fingers on a teacup or a Mason jar—to have no one person be responsible while they were all responsible.

They kept this up until my mother missed her third period; the pregnancy was stuck and continuing to try to dislodge it would be dangerous. But, even though their teas had had no effect, this did not stop them from switching to bringing my mother lentil soup and beef broth; it did not stop them from caring for her. From avoiding my father’s sexual advances, because even though they all, including my parents, believed in freedom from monogamy, and even if the women might have desired him, a fresh body in their small community, they knew it was too much for their new sister. They cared for her from a place of complete acceptance, willing to both try to make an unplanned pregnancy go away and welcome a new baby with handmade blankets. It wasn’t that she didn’t want me. She had longed to be a mother, but she was young and in a new place with my father. The women fashioned another crown for her to wear at my birth. I came into the world surrounded by these women, my mewling head scrambling to her breast. It was a day after her 20th birthday.

These same women bared their own breasts if I was fussy and my mother tired; some of them had their own children and milk to spare, and some of them had been dry for years. In either case, they knew the comforts of the physical body and did not hold back.

That’s how you know people love you, my mother said to me, when I told her I was leaving The Circle and she had told me again the story of her own arrival. They do their best for you whether you are right or wrong, and whether they agree or not.

She hadn’t wanted me at first, but she had held me still.

Not many of the first women my mother had met in The Circle remained, except for Barb-Ann. Some had scattered to other communities, some had passed away, a few had given up on the hard winters and living close to animals, and resettled in Denver. At least one woman had moved to Seattle, reconnecting with the child she had given up for adoption. I only knew this because there was a postcard of the Space Needle taped to the deep freeze, and once I had peeled it off and read the backside. She seems to have forgiven me, & I live with her now. Husband is nice. Adopted parents are kind. Unexpected, to reconnect w/ Gaia after years, tho they call her Jen. (Their name. I like mine better.) Miss you all, but I miss the time I could have had with my daughter more. Trying to make up for it, be well & One Love.

* * *

I wasn’t relying on herbs to avoid pregnancy. I had a modern IUD with another three years left on it. As much as they all fretted over chemicals, I couldn’t imagine any of the women, my mother included, would ever chide me for using birth control, after their generation had fought for it. I knew that now it was impossible for my mother to imagine how she would feel if the teas and herbs had worked, but I also knew she had never gotten pregnant again, and as a teenager, with Jay, I used to steal condoms from her dresser drawer, even though if I had just asked, I am sure she would have given them to me.

Still, I wondered how Jay’s face might brighten, and I wondered how my mother might take on a new energy, if I decided to open myself to a pregnancy. I wondered if I owed it to them.

* * *

Jay was coming back from the sauna, his body as hot and compact as an ember, heat shimmering off him in waves, dripping condensation in the cool air, a small crocheted afghan wrapped like a towel. I met him on the path to the new outhouse that I had dug with my own hands, bundled in a mothy sweater and a pair of his too-large boots. My feet were loose between the old leather and pitted soles. I could tell he didn’t expect to meet me.

“Melissa,” he said. “You look cold.”

“I am cold,” I said.

“I’ll build a fire in the bus,” he said.

He didn’t wait for my response, just turned, picking his way barefoot toward the only home he had ever known.

I pulled my pants down in the outhouse, and felt satisfied at how far my water had to fall. I hoped it would be a long time before I had to dig another hole like this.

Then, the sound of an axe splitting wood. The sound of Jay.

* * *

As children in our home study, we’d learned that corporations and banks were only interested in profit, and that profit came at the expense of humans, other animals, and the land we lived on. This belief was not held by only us, Circle people, but also by other communities who opted for simplicity and a life lived close to our Mother Earth. We didn’t think we were privileged. Then, I had felt the thrum of the earth’s core. I had felt the vibration of plants against soil. I had felt the pollen of flowers fall like dust motes. I had felt like the delicate balance of humans and other animals was a safe, if tenuous, negotiation. It seemed like work, with the bucket of dirt banging at my legs as I ascended a ladder out of the outhouse hole, and it seemed like very hard work with the continuous chopping of wood for cooking and heating, the constant scramble to grow and preserve food.

The only cash economy was linked to the pot operations that dotted the forests and relied on Circle people to grow and process and trim. I’d worked in trimming trailers as a girl. A group of us would gather around a table in a trailer or a motorhome or a yurt, and with our sharpened scissors, we’d snip the dried flowers, the valuable part of the marijuana plant, into tidy, saleable buds. There was plenty to barter, but sometimes we had needed real money. Herb salves cannot knit a broken bone. How much homemade jam would it have taken to pay a lawyer to settle a dispute after we’d diverted the creek and the adjacent landowner sued us for water rights? Someone must have had enough money, from something.

I didn’t know what Jay thought about this. It was something no one really talked about, the pot money and how The Circle’s gardening skills were attractive to growers. Colorado had moved toward legalization, but we were not part of the permitted scene. Too much government there for us, even if almost everyone was a registered voter.

* * *

When I had first left, hitchhiking to Denver, it was because I had wanted something different. Then, I had my fall weed money, and I’d rented a small studio apartment and had shaved my dreads, my pits, my crotch, my legs. I’m not sure that Jay or my mom or my dad could know how clean that felt, sheared from crown to toe. When a bit of peach fuzz would emerge on my pate or I felt even a prickle on my labia, I’d shave again. At the health foods store where I worked, I kept my head wrapped in a bright scarf. I finally did let my hair grow when I decided I wanted to try for the office job, and a few inches in, I realized I needed to buy a hairbrush, and the hairbrush felt almost like a forbidden object because I’d worn dreadlocks since puberty.

For a while, I slept on the floor of my apartment in my sleeping bag, and then I got a mattress, though it was still on the floor for years. I kept my sheets clean, and I had gotten there myself. The solitude and the slip of my body between the folds of new fabric continued to feel emboldening even as the sheets thinned in the wash.

* * *

Whenever I was sleeping on the sofa in Jay’s school bus, he would come to me.

“Are you staying?” he would want to know.

“I’m not sure,” I would say.

* * *

The night I saw Jay on the outhouse path and then followed him back to the bus, I was not too tired to fuck him. I fucked him with abandon. I knew I would be sore in every place in the morning, but I didn’t care. We’d loved each other as children, and we loved each other now. His body against mine. His body inside mine. His body tethered to mine. What was the point of any of life’s pain, if not this.

* * *

Still, no matter what nostalgia I had for The Circle, even the glow of Jay’s body was not enough to smooth the rough places.

I hadn’t really thought of her in years, but one day I was walking through the buildings and outbuildings, looking for something to do, and I remembered Claire. In Denver, I’d used my health insurance to get caught up on my vaccinations, and I always thought of Claire then, when the needle pierced my skin. She’d died when we were children, from the chicken pox, or at least that’s what we were told. Maybe she’d died from something more sinister and perhaps even something less. I wondered about measles or mumps or rubella. Either way, Claire, unvaccinated like all of the rest of us, had gotten very ill, and instead of being taken to a hospital, she’d been thrown a birthday party. The other children had been encouraged to lick from the handspun sugar lollipop that she’d held in her mouth all morning to build our natural immunity. Claire’s 9th birthday was her last, but as far as I knew, all of us who had put our tongues to her germs were still here. Or on this material plane, my mother might say.

I wanted to ask both of my parents about Claire, and I wanted to ask Jay what he remembered, since he’d known her, too, but Claire was even more taboo than talking about how marijuana linked us to capitalism. To say her name was to question, and even in a community that had come up in the era of consciousness raising and rejection of systems and that was decidedly pro the raising of collective voices, the few times I spoke of Claire sparked something animal, something angry, something that was much more than just an admission of failure. I could understand it.

In service of their own politics, they’d allowed a child to die.

If I had been an adult when Claire died, I’d also want to bury any thoughts about failing her deeper than even the outhouse hole, which was already deeper than a grave.

* * *

In Denver, first I had worked in a natural foods store that tolerated my transition to urbanism, and then I had transitioned to an office job where I looked at spreadsheets and sometimes wore pantyhose. Tights is what my mother would have called my stockings. It didn’t matter.

Half a decade I was there, in the same studio apartment, and no one from The Circle ever came to see me. I had thought I might get a visitor or two who needed to crash on the way to a free clinic or on some errand, but I might have been just as off-limits as Claire. I would have opened my home to them. I would have made sure they had the kind of food they were used to, because I still ate that way, homemade yogurt and sprouted grains, avoiding pasteurization whenever I could, and always emphasizing plants over animals. There was kefir in my fridge, castile soap in my shower. Maybe I would have even put the razors away. Yet, no one came. Not my parents, not Jay, and not even someone passing through.

* * *

In the morning, I went to my parents’ house in The Circle, wanting more privacy than the communal shower. They used the outhouses like everyone else—water was too precious to crap in, they believed, and also, why would you want to shit in your own home, my father said—but they did have a small tub, and they did have an on-demand hot-water heater that my mother said was really for the kitchen, but I knew she indulged in a bath now and again.

In my pack I still had a razor, which I hadn’t touched since I’d returned, all the better that it would still be sharp.

I ran a sink full of hot water and, since there was no shaving cream, lathered up with shampoo. I took my curls off in chunks, gripping the hair close to the scalp and cutting it clean. When I’d taken off my dreads, I had saved them, but the loose strands now were too chaotic to save, so I put the foamy locks in the garbage bin to keep from clogging the drain.

It was hard to tell if there was a breeze in the room or if it was just the new pink of my scalp, and I didn’t stop. I cleaned my armpits, my legs, and my sex of hair. I scraped my forearms, my eyebrows.

Rinsing in the tub, the already-hot water felt hotter, after my skin had been scraped by the blade. I remembered this. I wished I had clean clothes to put on, but I did not, and so I wrapped in a thin towel and hurried back to Jay’s school bus. I didn’t expect to find him at home, but there he was, brewing tea and smoking a joint.

“Melissa,” he said. “You’re bare.”

“I am.” I realized I had accidentally left the razor in the bathroom, and my stomach turned knowing that my parents would see the disposable handle. They’d say I knew better than to incorporate single-use plastic items into my life, and they’d be right. My dirty clothes were left behind too, but they wouldn’t care about that.

Already, I felt bumps forming where I’d pushed too hard, or where the skin was thin. My kneecap. The nape of my neck. Already, I felt incomplete knowing there were places that might not have been done completely. The middle of my back. My asshole. The regret of this I did not remember when I’d shaved myself before.

“I have a comfrey tincture that I can stretch with olive oil,” Jay said, noticing that some of my skin was red.

He took a clean sheet from the storage under the bench seat and spread it across the floor. He rubbed me from head to toe and back, and he anointed me even in places the razor had not grazed. My nipples. My ears. The bottoms of my feet. My clit.

“Can you stay with me here, Melissa?” he asked, working more oil in. It felt good, smooth. My towel was long discarded, and somewhere between my calves and the undersides of my arms, Jay had become naked too. I was on my back and his cock was hard and he’d moved one hand to touch himself, while he kept the other on me, thumb working at my center, two fingers inside.

I couldn’t help but think what a mess the sheet would be to wash, how hard we’d have to scrub to get it clean. How we’d find patches of gloss on the floor for days. Then the way he started moving in me made me think I could actually stay with him and do so with honesty, made me forget about the soiled sheet, made me forget about my hair, made me forget about how I’d gotten here, made me think this, this, this, only this.

* * *

The world with Jay shifted some. I stayed on the sofa, mostly, but I met him on the floor more and more often, and there was a part of that which made sense to me, to feel the unforgiving vinyl of the school bus at my back or on my knees. How I found bruises on my elbows and wrists, even though Jay was gentle, always gentle, when we were making love. I still hated the expression, even though I felt a deepening of my feelings toward Jay.

Just before the weather turned to deep winter, we had one of those Colorado days where the sun was out and the light was golden and it felt like snow could never come, while everything gleamed and we sweated through our undershirts.

Most of the fall work was done, and Barb-Ann organized a cookout in the communal kitchen—it was potluck and the remainders of the autumn crop, like squash that were not quite good enough to store but still good enough to eat, items that had to be cleared from the deep freeze, and potatoes with shovel scars. We cleaned and ate our leftovers and ugly produce; we found guitars and banjos and drums. Someone donated homemade wine that was not particularly tasty but was certainly potent, and we danced until the moon began to peek over the trees.

By the next evening, a storm front would come in, and we’d enter a brutal cold that would freeze a few chickens who hadn’t gotten to shelter, and make going to the outhouse miserable and sometimes impossible. In the beginning, the wind would come so hard I worried the school bus would tip, and Jay and I would sit on the side that was taking impact, to add a couple hundred pounds of weight.

I would have to decide then, as the old windows creaked and the gusts felt as if they could lift the tires, if I could stay in this life with Jay. He would have to decide if he would have me, though I think he was already sure.

“Has it ever blown over?” I asked him. I felt like I would have remembered something like this, but I wasn’t positive.

“It’s pretty solid,” he said. “And the frame is anchored to the ground, though it has been a while since I checked the cables.”

I didn’t point out that he hadn’t answered my question. We were in the center of the circle, where Jay’s folks had parked the bus four decades ago, and it hadn’t moved since. The tires were long gone and the engine parted out; it rested on concrete blocks, and someone had woven yarn through the steering wheel to make it look like a dreamcatcher. It looked like a child’s work. As Jay pulled me closer, and we leaned toward the direction of the wind, I wondered if it might have been me.

Wendy J. Fox’s Comments

I grew up in a very rural area that was attractive to folks who were part of the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s, some of them living communally. “The Center of the Circle” is not specifically autobiographical, but it is somewhat emblematic of my interest in the tension between urbanism and living rurally, and in the interplay between what I often think are pastoral ideas about rural life—when, in fact, it can be a harsh and violent way to live.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 55 | Spring/Summer 2020