Nativity by Ryan McFadden



Joanie circled the cul-de-sac and pulled in behind the moving truck. She cut the engine, and the wagon rattled quiet. She sat a moment in silence, looking at his progress so far.

Their furniture was on the lawn in the exact setup of the living room. The plaid couch faced the street bookended by the matching recliner and a suede beanbag. Behind it, the cheap floor lamp with the macramé shade, and in front, a heavy coffee table its top an old oak surfboard. Same old Goodwill specials displayed for new neighbors; same room, new house.

She focused on her breath going in and out, pictured herself as a rock and others as untied balloons. But this vision quickly morphed into towers of boxes—all the work needed to make a home again. She tried and tried, but she never could get the stillness of meditation right. Trying so hard was the whole problem.

She cracked the window. There was seaweed on the air, the lingering remnants of beach fires. There was the low boom of breakers, landing and receding, and the rhythmic clang of the roller coaster climbing toward its summit, people screaming as it fell.

She’d fantasized about California so long. Freedom, sun, good acid—life like a moveable feast. And for a time, it was this.

But she’d been here seven years, and the luster had worn off. Now she and Das, her husband, were starting this new phase, and there was a chance for something newly concrete. Santa Cruz? That’s where she started her family.

Gita, her little boy, stirred in his car seat. She watched in the rearview as he yawned and went on sleeping. Golden curls framed his angel face, a tangle of warm yarn. His silent, unsullied peace.

She got out, set the door shut, and went up the drive as far as she could without losing sight of the car. Das had unrolled their one good Oriental runner on the concrete, in the shade of the house. He was in full lotus, his long hair set free of its ponytail, draping the shoulders of his kurta. A lit stick of incense in the planter bed sent curls of smoke round his fluttering closed eyes.

He looked good that way, she thought. Vedic, even. Sometimes she still felt for him.

Das brought his hands to his lips and bowed. He opened his eyes and saw Joanie, stood, and wrapped his arm around her tiny middle.

“We’re here,” he said. “And here we are.”

“It blows my mind,” she said.

He kissed her; she laid her palms upon his chest and her head against the backs of her hands. They stayed this way a moment, held and holding.

Then she felt a dampness against her skin and pulled away. There were sweat stains on his kurta. She looked up at him, the dazed, blissed-out glaze on his eyes. That feeling of having been unburdened of all weight and floating free, reborn.

Or so he’d told her.

“Come on,” she said.

She turned him, and he let himself be turned. She pushed him toward the moving truck, and he went where her energy sent him. She watched him into the back of the truck, and once he was inside, she stepped on the incense, snuffing its useless smoke.

They’d spent two years following Maharishi—their guru—from California to Florida and back. Midway through ‘79, Joanie got pregnant and decided to quit.

They tried to persuade her. The boys got enlightened, the girls watched the babies, and the food stamps rolled in. One big happy family. Didn’t she understand they were remaking society? What—would she go back to being Catholic?

But she wouldn’t let them steal her baby, make it collectively owned. She knew a woman it happened to at a commune on Maui. They’d claimed the baby as the first in a new line of kings. When the cops came, the guru claimed paternity.

No. This baby wiggled inside, and she had never known such possessiveness in all her life, such an urge to retreat. She would never need anyone else again.

Her parents sent a one-way ticket home, and David—before he was Das—hitched to some camp in Humboldt. She swore it was done then. But after a month, she left Chicago and met him. They had a month of passion, broke up, reconciled, and repeated. All the while, her belly grew.

Six months later, they fell into Santa Cruz.

They named the baby James, and the moment David saw him, he changed. He got a job in sales, wore slacks, and took up running. He only got high on weekends, and they made rent every month for a year.

Then in June of ’81, David quit his job. He said his soul was a well, and she and the baby had sucked it dry. He went up the coast to trip and meditate. What was supposed to be three days stretched to a month. She remembered clearly because they had a Christmas tree with snowy garland, an unopened present she’d knitted for him. She stared at the baby, slept fitfully, talked on the phone with her mother.

A cold lonely winter, outside of both worlds.

David came back different. He only wore kurtas, abstained from alcohol and grass, and made an oath to peaceful living. He meditated two hours a day and lined the hall closet with blankets for primal yell therapy. He said he was a new person now—a better person—and he named this person “Das.” James, too, had a new name: it was Gita, which meant “song.”

Joanie seized on this latest return to push for a move. She put it in terms Das would understand: The old house had heaviness, a spiritual debt. New names should go with new places. Das was so happy: she finally got him, he said.

Really she had only one driving thought: to control James’s first memory. If she did this, then anything else in his life—anything bad—would roll off of him like water. His foundation would be solid.

She’d heard another teacher—a woman—say you were defined by your shoulder shrugs. When bad things happened, could you passively catalog, noting “this, too… Oh, and this, too,” and still carry on?

But for Maharishi, the self was a set of scales. We were born balanced, but consciousness tipped it. Only with constant attention could things be kept right. She’d been saying “this, too” a lot, but she could never shrug away the vague sense her scale now had infiltrators: Das in one pan, David in the other. She saw the two men getting high together, laughing at the sounds she made in bed.

This, too, was a kind of balance.

Joanie put Gita, still asleep, in his new room and then came back down the hall. A few potted plants spilled greenery against one wall; their devotionals and vellums leaned against another. There were the boxes of records and Life magazines she cut up for collages, back when she used to get high.

She looked in the broom closet that Das had already lined with blankets. They’d absorbed so much anger, and yet here they hung benignly, a cozy rabbit hole.

She went to their bedroom. The bare mattress was on the floor, and at the foot sat three wood crates of clothes. They would dress the bed, but otherwise, the new room would stay this way. Bedrooms were for sleep and sex, and to remain unadorned. Simplicity enabled mindfulness, an order for her to sink into.

Das came up behind her, his hands sliding onto her hips.

“Is James still asleep?” she said.

“Gita,” he corrected.

She turned to look up at him.

“Is he?”


She turned back to their room.

“They cleaned really well,” she said. “There’s no dust.”

She ran her finger along the inside of the doorframe and held it up for him.

“See?” she said.

“Only you would notice.”

He moved his hands to her belly. She looked down the hall, pictured her mothers’ co-op in the kitchen, and their friends round the living room floor. She pictured Gita running out on Christmas morning, the first memories that would plant, right here. The life they were building.

“This is good,” she said.

Das breathed into her hair.


He pressed against her.

“We won’t mess up again.”

“No,” he whispered.

He kissed her neck, and the roughness of his cheek sent a jolt through her spine. She closed her eyes and exhaled. Das kissed her more and moved his hands over her. Inside she felt a spinning polarity: just as the repulsion was strongest, his gravity pulled her back.

“We should finish,” she said.

“I was trying,” he said.

Her breath quickened.

“What about Gita?” she said.

“What about us?” he said.

Joanie stood in the bathroom mirror smoothing her dress. Normally afterward, her mind was blank, and this blankness lasted a long time. The world looked whole again, and for a few minutes, she could breathe and just be.

But now her mind was not blank.

She peered out of the bathroom window to the filigreed side of the Victorian next door. Cracks showed in the siding; the fleur-de-lis chunked with a century’s worth of lead paint. A curtain moved. Had Joanie been too loud?

Far off, the screams rose and fell from the roller coaster. She would hear this many thousands of times.

A deep loathing came over her; her skin tingled with it, as though she were covered in fleas. On the buses that followed guru, everyone was lousy. In meditation, you heard hands slapping them away. It was funny how the physical reality was so different than the places the mind could go. Funny until you started scratching.

She tasted bile in her throat. She bent over the toilet, but nothing came up. She went out into the hall. Das was lying on the bed, naked, whistling, and rolling a cigarette. Through the open front door, she could see wisps of fog rolling in.

She walked the few paces to Gita’s room. His blankets and stuffed frog were in a heap in the corner. There were his boxes of toys, his crib, and the dresser that doubled as a changing table that she’d always been so afraid he’d roll off of.

“Das,” she said.

She went to the front porch. Tiny handprints had been pressed in the concrete, not now but decades ago. She went and pressed her face against the hot glass of the wagon. She peered in each window as though expecting separate rooms.

“David,” she called out.

She went to the moving truck, dropped to her knees to look under it. He appeared above her.

“What?” he said.

“Where’s James?”


Gita. Where’s Gita?”

“He’s in the—” Das turned to look at the house’s open door.

“No,” she said, her voice rising.

Das ran in, disappeared down the hall. He reappeared on the porch, his palms skyward.

Joanie started to hyperventilate.

“What if he goes home?” she said.

“This is home,” Das said.

“He doesn’t know where we are!” she screamed.

She jumped up and turned and ran. She went into the big park that started at the cul-de-sac. She ran to the edge of the field, to the low cliff at the park’s edge. It overlooked the ocean. A tide surged over the sandbar that kept the river from the sea, churning eddies in the green water. A car was cresting the main peak of the roller coaster. So many places to call a boy away.

On instinct, she turned and ran back to where the park spread between the houses. Scattered cypress trees, picnic tables. There was a birthday party. Had they seen a little blond boy? There were three hippies tripping on the swings. Had they seen her son? Had they taken him?

All-black pupils in unseeing eyes.

The park sloped into a dense stand of trees. A wood platform was at the top of this slope, leading onto two long slides. A girl was turning over buckets of dirt on them, watching the unformed castles crash down.

Had she seen a boy?

The girl pointed to where the slides ended, to a trail beaten into the trees.

He went there? She didn’t stop him?

The girl shrugged. Joanie went bounding down the hillside. She entered the trail, a tunnel through blackberry vines dimmed by the canopy overhead. She ran in, the thorns scraping her arms, rounded a bend and suddenly stopped.

His back was to her. He was just standing there, amid the vines, his little hands slack at his sides, gazing into the canopy of trees.

“Oh my god!” she cried. “Baby bear!”

She ran to him, tackled him from behind, and he shrieked in fear. She shushed between her sobs.

“It’s okay, baby,” she said. “It’s okay. You’re okay now.”

She squeezed him, pressed her face into his neck. He turned, saw her face, and then he cried, too.

She sat and rocked him, and squeezed him so tight that he wheezed. He curled into her, and for a long time, they sat entwined this way.

Slowly her shaking stopped, and his cries became whimpers. She found herself humming My Favorite Things, the song that, even in her shaky voice, always enticed him to calm.

She stood and turned to leave.

“No, mommy,” he said. “Go.”

“We are, baby. We’re going home.”

“No,” he said.

He pointed deeper into the grove of trees, down the length of the trail.

“That way?”

He nodded and leaned his head on her shoulder.

She listened to the forest. The sounds of the ocean were muffled, like putting her ear to a shell. She looked toward the way she had come, and she looked to where the trail went–around another bend and then lost in the density of what grew there. It was a monstrously tangled place, and yet, the trail through it was well defined. It only took one step and then another.

Her feet carried her deeper in.

The tunnel gave onto an opening in the trees. There was a black pond in the center, a film of dust on its still water, footprints in the mud around it. Two trees framed the entrance to this hollow, and there were crude faces carved on each, squiggly lines for hair and open circles for mouths as if caught mid-conversation. The down went up on her arms, but she went forward.

She crept around the pond, following the footprints. She sat on a downed eucalyptus, and James sat beside her, hitting the log with a stick. Tree droppings littered the ground, peeled skins and sickle-shaped leaves, dappled by sunlight and swaying shadows.

There was a structure on the other side of the pond. It was a weave of branches, like a huge nest but upright. A blue tarp had been stretched over it, and there was an opening in the front.

A man appeared in it.

The man rubbed his shirtless belly and picked leaves from his skin; there were more in his wild hair. He stretched and kneaded the mud with his toes. He yawned, slid his hands inside his waxy jeans. He scratched himself, sighing with satisfaction. She could hear it, the raking sound his fingernails made.

The skin of his face was spotted with dried mud.

The man stepped out of the hovel and walked to the pond. He undid the rope around his waist, and his pants fell to his ankles. He put his hands on his hips and peed. The stream spattered into the water and echoed from the trees.

The stream slackened, and he swung his hips in circles. He looked at her.

“Not bad, eh?” The man laughed.

He looked up, as though watching his laughter. Then he fell silent, and for a long time stood this way, his neck craned skyward. Finally, she looked, too.

The canopy swayed, morphing the chain-link pattern the trees made on the sky. But a second pattern emerged, countless flutters against the shadows. It was thousands of butterflies. They flitted everywhere, orange with black eyespots on the wings. The air was alive with them, and still, thousands more were clustered on the branches. The clusters were orange at the edges and ash grey underneath, the newest arrivals clamping on to earlier ones.

The man began whistling her tune, and its closeness startled her. She looked down to see him on the log only a few feet from her. A buttery smell drifted off of him, mixed with menthol from the trees. She gripped James tightly.

“You know,” he whispered. “They shouldn’t even be here.”


He pointed up.

“The bugs. They’re immigrants.”

He patted the trunk between them.

“Eucalyptus from Australia, monarchs from Mexico. Now it’s a preserve, and I’m the bum. Ain’t that something?”

He shook his head.

“It doesn’t make any sense.”

He scratched at his cheek, and some of the mud cracked off, revealing a spot of pink skin beneath.

“What about him?” The man pointed at James. “He native?”


“No. From here. From this dirt.”

“Well, he was, like, born here.”

“Were you?”


He frowned, and more mud fell from his face.

“Then he’s from nowhere because he came from you, and you have no place.”

He got up and went to the pond. He squatted beside it, his chin on his knees, and dug his hands into a lump of wet leaves. He seemed to be searching for something.

She gazed at the butterflies and tree shadows, and an intense calm came over her. She saw how the forest was made of countless individual pieces, and in this separation, she saw its harmlessness. It had no great thingness, no malicious intent. It was only a million tiny coincidences.

Through the trees, she heard a white noise of voices reciting vague half-truths and meaningless, circular wisdoms. It was the Vedas. Now she pictured them as the rock and James as a stream crashing over it. Eventually, the stream would grind the rock to dust.

The last of the mud fell from the man’s face. He brought his hand from the pile of wet mud and flattened it against his cheek, but none of it stuck. There was just his young face gazing into the dusty water. A rush of wind carried through the trees, and the butterflies and dappled light around her had a raw, tingling reality.

Suddenly a deep voice echoed, and there came the crashing of heavy footsteps, trampling the forest.

Joanie jumped up. She faced the tunnel that led into the grove. A pair of legs appeared, then a torso in a kurta, and hands clenched into fists.

“Well,” the homeless man said. “I guess I get born now, too.”

She retreated. She stepped back until she could see the man on the fallen tree, and around him the full circle of the forest. The white kurta faded against it, an insignificant speck. She stopped retreating, and then her feet began to carry her forward. She walked past the forest man and then past the raging man in the spiritual clothing, and into the tunnel of vines.

Behind her, she heard shouting, but she kept walking, through the trees and out of the park, gripping James tightly to her. She paused by their new little house. Before her lay a straight path into the Santa Cruz Mountains, San Jose, and the Valley. It only took a climb. But then this thought passed on, leaving the blue tranquility she’d found in the hidden grove.

Trying so hard was the whole problem.

She sat on the open bed of the moving truck, watching the sunset behind the silhouetted trees. She nuzzled into James and rocked him. Things would find their natural order if only we would let them. It didn’t take any trying at all.


Ryan lives in Berkeley, CA with his wife and two sons. To pay the bills, he writes for Dropbox; at night and on weekends, he crafts his own stories. He has an MFA in fiction from CCA. His stories have appeared in several print and web publications, and his nonfiction essay “What is Left” (Reed Magazine no. 152) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He’s currently neck-deep in writing his first novel.


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