What She Isn’t (Fiction Out-Take from My Novel, Nettle Soup)


Hazel(2)“Why do you have to step in the mud?” Sharon complained over the drone of the generator. She had come to the door to greet Delmita, but now glared at the imprint of Delmita’s boot in the February mud.

“Because I kind of like walking through it,” Delmita said. “Course, not that I want to track it into the zaguan,” which was their word for the entry room.

“Well, come in,” Sharon told her. “I got news.” She slapped her own thigh with finality. She proceeded through the entry curtain to her rocker, which squatted around the woodstove in an arc with Delmita’s rocker and a couple of end tables. The woodbox, to the side of the woodstove, was already filled for the night. The wood looked more like elbows than limbs; it came from the part of the woodpile where they’d put the odd-shaped logs that they hadn’t left for Pearl after they’d cleared a blowdown from her driveway.

Sharon glanced at the botanical arrangement she’d constructed that morning, a refuge from the overwhelming Delmita-ness everywhere else in their home. This particular bouquet took up half of the kitchen table, hardly leaving room for the wooden panel she’d spent the rest of the day on. The frizz of hazelnut twigs contrasted in their disarray with the yellow tassels that hung like a hundred perfect plumb bobs. The table lamps cast grandiose shadows of the twigs on the walls.

“Stay there,” came Delmita’s command from the zaguan. She had huffed off her jacket and would be smoothing it onto an overcharged hook. “Stay,” she barked at the jacket again, then sank loudly onto the bench. Now she’d be lifting a booted foot to her hands, loosening the laces, easing out the ankle with the toe of the other foot, then flicking the boot loose. Sharon heard them smack the opposing wall—the first, and then a few grunts later, the second. They’d lay on the floor as if they’d been run over, until Sharon herself put them right the next time she passed.

Delmita sidled through the entry curtain and dropped to her rocker. Volta, the larger of the cats, leapt to her lap. “Okay, what news? We don’t need no news. First the turbine, then the County.” The turbine referred to the micro-hydropower system, totally illegal, that had been ruined by fines in the last rainstorm; and the tax assessor referred to the county’s discovery that a couple of their buildings had grown. “Why does County want more taxes?” Delmita continued. “For bigger government and more assessors, that’s why. What do we bring in? My fat salary and a check from Todd cuando le da la gana de trabajar, and nothing more.” “When he felt like working,” Sharon understood, “and nothing more.”

With those brief statements, Delmita had said it all. She’d already heard enough about Sharon’s news, her micro-hydro hobby was more important than rules, and her salary trumped everything else the residents earned. In this latter category Delmita had overlooked the collective earnings from truck crops, cut flowers, willow cuttings, baby goats, eggs, and their first cohort ever of Christmas trees. She’d overlooked Hugo’s veteran’s benefit, which was steady and significant. And she’d overlooked not only the part of Sharon’s pension that didn’t go to child support, but her earnings from doing hair every week of the year.

~ ~ ~

A silence caught Sharon off-guard. She hadn’t expected Delmita to be waiting for a response. “Krystal called,” Sharon said. “She’s coming tomorrow.”

“No. We can’t have that. Give me her number,” Delmita snapped.

Sharon stopped rocking.

“Get up. Let’s go,” Delmita ordered. She sprung upright, her lap slinging Volta across the floor. The nearest phone was a trek away, in the Whitehouse, but distance, mud, and rain wouldn’t stop Delmita once she got an idea, especially one with justice involved.

“I want to see her,” Sharon said evenly.

“No you don’t. Trust me. She’ll slap you in the face.”

Delmita was right, but she was also wrong. Sharon knew a lot about human nature. It was the norm for kids to be furious with the parent they didn’t live with. A typical divorce was bad enough, but Sharon had also come out as transgender. Besides, Sharon’s goal wasn’t to not be slapped. It was to keep throwing her daughter a rope so if she were ever ready, she could reach for it. If Sharon stopped trying, there’d be little chance at all. That’s why she sent her a pre-franked post card every full moon for the past eight years.

“She already has directions so she has to come,” Sharon said. In fact, Krystal had said curtly, “I’ll MapQuest it. You can’t give directions anyway.”

Krystal’s brief call had come only moments after Sharon had led Trina, her fifteen-year old client, to the styling chair. After the call ended, Sharon had laid eyes on her own reflection–the hanging lower lip that signaled her distress, the discord of her parts taken together. She saw a hairdresser with hair the color of pencil lead. She saw wagon wheels and wishbones staggering on the diagonal across a beige smock, over slacks the color of turkey-marrow. The specter appeared designed to be looked beyond, like a seam through the middle of a tablecloth, or a cord on a chandelier.

“I think my stupid face will look less fat if you feather my bangs,” Trina had said. Her fingers rearranged her hair into a semblance of feathered bangs. “Don’t you think?”

~ ~ ~

Sharon detained Delmita in the guise of a hug. She crossed her arms around her partner’s back and laced her finger through the frizzled ponytail. “Could you be home early?” Sharon asked, and then she set her chin on top of Delmita’s head. “She’ll be here at three o’clock.” Just as feathered bangs weren’t going to solve the problem of Trina’s face, stopping Krystal from visiting wouldn’t change Sharon’s problem.

Delmita reacted as Sharon expected. She pulled herself loose, returned to the rocker, and talked.

First Delmita recounted the fog on the way into work that morning and a daredevil motociclista on the way home. Then she started in about a breakdown, a solenoid at the Coldwater Fish Facility. Breakdowns got her beloved attention, so much more than routine work–lab renovations, isolation of power for servers rooms–as a university electrician. Breakdowns required her to make both a technical fix and a personal one. A guy who lost faith in the override, the alarm, incubator, cualquier cosa, wouldn’t trust anything again. Delmita’s papa taught her about the personal fix when her rag doll flew out the car window as a kid; Sharon heard the story a hundred times. He hung a Uey and drove back, half the family hanging out the windows. When they found her, her head was flattened. Her papa picked the doll off the road. “Hija,” he said, “her spirit was down here in her leg. Let’s squeeze a little of it back up.” He kneaded and shook little Lupe until her head was almost round again.

Sharon was not a breakdown that Delmita had chosen to fix. She was broken, but a broken what? No noun fit her, not now at sixty, not then at fifty, forty, thirty, twenty, or ten. She was attracted toward women, and her internal mandate was to be a woman. She’d followed that mandate, and had transitioned. Away from? Toward? She had no identity for what she was, only for what she was not: not a real woman; not a true partner, just Delmita’s sidekick. Not quite a father and not a mother at all.

Sharon’s marriage had ended when she was forty-two years old and her little girl was two. That same year, conservation efforts for the spotted owl shut down logging on the National Forest, and Sharon had to either take a lateral transfer elsewhere in the Forest Service or lose her job. Her visceral need was to stay near Krystal, but all her other needs–income, the five years to qualify for federal retirement, safety once her transitioning was known, and the transition itself–required she leave rural Tillamook County and take the lateral to Portland.

The Portland years were hard. She’d counted down the sixty months until she could retire and begin to transition. She’d almost entirely missed Krystal’s childhood. When she did retire, income went down and child support took a bigger bite.  Krystal’s mother had finally agreed to let her visit more often so she moved to a suburb a little closer to Hebo but still in reach of the services she needed in Portland.

But even with her meager material needs, her work ethic, and twenty-five-years’ experience and skills, she couldn’t get her feet under her. Every job application automatically outed her by requiring her former names for background checks. She got a sales job in an outdoor shop, and lost it within a month “because she wasn’t a match.” Same script when she then worked as a medical receptionist. She hadn’t passed, couldn’t pass as a woman. With the last of her savings she’d earned a real estate license. Within six months she closed, defeated: her clients wouldn’t stick. On better nights she cursed that she should have invested in an electrolysis unit instead; at least that way she’d have been providing a service to grateful people. She’d lived pension check to pension check, the last of her buffer gone. Sharon considered disappearing from Earth–better that than going into the sex industries that seemed the last resort. Finally, she approached her ex-wife. She agreed to let Sharon suspend child support for nine months to attempt yet another career: beauty school, the bottom, Sharon thought, of the bottom of careers. Not only was the career lacking, she’d always fear that as a stylist if she were outed, she’d be painted with the tedious stereotype of the male-to-female trans beauty queen. Her only aptitude as a stylist was that she could listen, and her only interest was self-employment in a small town and enough earnings to make ends meet.

Those were the stories, but what drove them? She was a freak of nature, as her brother had ground into her. Other people had passions that connected them with something meaningful, or that directed them somewhere eventually. It was as if Sharon lived in a match of Chutes and Ladders but she had no ladders, and all her dice had Ones on every face.

She rocked slowly in the glow of the fire in the Delmita-filled room. Even trans didn’t describe an identity. Trans was a lack of state, a lack of fully occupying herself for lack of trust that she would pass. Trans conferred a fear that she would be beaten up, whatever she did. Gender dysphoria and a vacant heart drove the stories of her life. And so she had taken on dullness like a caddisfly larva takes on pebbles. She had retreated to the woods to identify plants and animals; and in society, she blended, hid, deflected, made herself the least remarkable object around: pencil-colored hair, turkey-marrow colored pants. Sharon was neutral by a freak of nature’s design.

~ ~ ~

Until early in high school, Krystal dutifully spent time with Sharon. Gradually Sharon’s ex-wife let the two of them go on drives and walks and paddle in a borrowed canoe. In her sophomore year of high school, though, Krystal asked her to stop coming, and that was when the long drives began. She’d drive from her suburb to a Coast Range ridge on a moonless night and she’d talk to the daughter who wasn’t there. She’d drive to an estuary and park at a boat ramp then gaze upstream where they could have canoed on an incoming tide to return later in the day. When the salmon were spawning she’d pull off the road to watch the bald eagles hold vigil over streambanks, take flight with their strong wings, and perch in another set of trees.  She was sat out her life as she waited for the child she hardly knew. The last time Sharon saw her, Krystal was in college and twenty years old. The visit ended in an embarrassing scene in a coffee shop. Sharon needed Krystal’s visit because she need to test that rope again.

Delmita’s monologue was still filling the room, and like usual, it was going in circles. “And talking of fish, when Cursock called about the circulation going down, he’s the señorito who goes to Salem to testify about salmon, when Cursock called Facilities, he said ‘I want Delmita De Huerta. She’s the only competent one.’ ”

Delmita chuckled, satisfied.

~ ~ ~

Before they went to bed, Delmita didn’t say whether she’d be home at three o’clock, and she didn’t comment on the panel under the bouquet that was now sanded, primed, and painted in ivory gloss. And more:  Sharon had outlined the words of the Covenant in pencil, and she’d designed a curlicue as two leaves with a tilde between them:   “We commit to support one another in the development and maintenance of a functional community,” she’d written. Curlicue. “We commit to seek the knowledge and skills to survive and thrive without degrading the resources that may be used by others who we know, do not yet know, or will never know.” Curlicue. “We commit to live honestly and according to our beliefs.” Delmita asked nothing further about Sharon’s feelings, her progress, her day: Delmita didn’t care.

But the next day, Delmita was home by 2:45 like someone who cared. And when Krystal didn’t appear by 4:00 pm she paced around the Yellowhouse acting properly concerned, and finally burst out, “It’s leap year today, cariño. You think this is probably a joke?”

It was just shy of 5:00 when Krystal and her boyfriend pulled up. While Sharon checked her hair by the reflection in the window, Delmita marched across the mud hole to greet them.

Que puta es eso. You’re late,” Delmita said with an aggressive smile, and clapped Krystal on the back. “I was starting to wonder if you meant 3:00 pm on a different February twenty-nine.”

“We were supposed to turn onto some dirt road it said on MapQuest,” Krystal said defensively. “We couldn’t believe it, so we drove all the way back to Bennett and went to that hick store–”

“The Merc. Don’t talk it down–”

“And the lady said, ‘You’re looking for Sharon.’ My God, the way she said it.”

Parent and daughter greeted distantly. The boyfriend, Alex, was introduced. All four entered the zaguan and passed through the curtain to the interior. The guests perched too far forward in the spare rockers as if they were afraid to touch the upholstery. They didn’t comment on the skull collection, the shrine of Krystal’s school photos, or the jar of hazelnut, looking like a tangle of sticks.  No attempts at conversation stuck.

Delmita proposed an outside tour in the dusk, but even that went poorly. Krystal and her boyfriend wouldn’t enter the hoop-house where Sharon was germinating carrots, peas, and kale, even though Delmita passed inside and was still narrating the tour. Forward progress wasn’t helped by Sharon’s stopping at the spigot well back of her vegetable starts. Krystal spent the rest of the tour ignoring Delmita’s attempts to entertain. Instead, Krystal made snide remarks to her boyfriend as if she were an appraiser for the buyer’s side.

~ ~ ~

The big slap finally came. In front of the barrels of Dry Stores Krystal turned to the spectators–Sharon, Delmita, and Alex–and announced, “I wanted Alex to see why I’m so screwed up.”

Sharon’s dropped her head to her chest.

But that was just the warm-up. The disfiguring slap came from someone else. They entered the Workroom through the back door, opening to a scene where everyone was already seated.  Hugo and Star were plating out so-called stir-fried elk, which was elk-meat diluted with dried and reconstituted chanterelles, chestnut flour, and baked potatoes–basic beige food made passable with clover sprouts, steamed nettles, and mint jelly.

Delmita said, “This is Sharon’s daughter Krystal, and her friend Alex. As you know, this is their first visit.”

Hugo, straightening and looking at the new arrivals, said, “Holy shit.”

“In case you wondered, I’m Steven’s, oh excuse me, Sharon’s daughter,” Krystal said, drawing out the word excuse.  “He’s my dad.”

“We know that, bitch,” Hugo retorted. “We’re not idiots.” He shook the spatula with alarming intensity. “He’s not a real lady, and I didn’t catch your name, but apparently you aren’t either.”

Sharon felt pain behind the eyes. He? He’s not a real lady?

“In case no one told you,” Hugo continued, “I’m the acid-brained vet. And they don’t care.” Pointing to Dawn: “She’s the control freak.” Like the gestapo, he turned to look around the room, settling on one person and then the next. “Delmita’s fat. Is that environmentally friendly? To be obese? Don gave his wife the pants, long time ago. Erin hides Hershey bars. Aaron’s an engineer who can’t do amps and volts. Renate’s high strung and so’s the effin’ baby. Todd’s got a trust fund to bribe his way through his moral dilemmas. Star, my ‘former lover’ wants a free place to live. But guess what, honey:  we don’t care.”

Krystal and Alex rose, but Hugo wasn’t done. “Family is welcome here because we take care of each other. But you can get out.”

Sharon sprang up only steps behind the visitors, but they clicked their doors shut, revved the engine, and sped away. She watched the tail-lights blink off as the car disappeared at the first curve, and then she heard it rattle over the bridge. At her feet were gouges in the mud where the back tires had been.

The pronoun he was a window to Hugo’s deepest thoughts. Sharon felt ragged. She didn’t know what noun she was. An ugly freak-of-nature trans, a mutilated male in lady’s clothes. She turned her coiffed head down and looked at the black shadows cast by the full moon. She felt to be an overwintered bull thistle, a dead stalk with its broken head hanging down. Her big hands, lifeless, were overwintered leaves whose barbs had decayed to nothing.

February was muddy, but it was nothing compared to March.


This story is an out-take from my unpublished novel, Nettle Soup. I removed it during revisions so I could tell the novel with fewer points of view.  Sharon and Delmita are members of a commune in the Oregon Coast Range where residents swear to live light on the Earth. You can learn more about my novel and sign up for news about it’s eventual publication at https://barbaralachenbruch.com/current-writing-projects/ .

The early bloom of hazelnuts this year reminded me of this chapter. Hazelnut is a wild tree/shrub of the same genus from which commercial hazelnuts were domesticated.

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