THE OAKS, by Rip Rense

                          Chapter 1. Hilltop  

“To understand and appreciate the message of an old oak tree means more for a good life than all the books of man.”---Jens Jensen, American landscape architect.

         He sat on top of a hill, thinking thoughts that didn’t have names yet.

         Below was a town of 12,000, an idyllic little wish of a town made of tract houses and quiet streets and barking dogs and oak trees and station wagons.

         Oak trees, oak trees, oak trees.

         They were in front yards, back yards. They lined the hills, dotted the valleys, decorated the pastures, outlined the creeks, hung maternally over rooftops. Gnarled, unmoving, ancient. Rooted deep in the earth, their reaching-hand branches seeming to clutch the sky.

         They held the world together.

         They held his world together.

         He was seven years old, and his name was Charlie.

         He sat, looking. At the distant purplish-blue mountains, at the nearer skyline of dumpling hills and rock-crested semi-mountains that looked like old volcanoes. At the houses that wound around like ant trails, and grouped together in mobs. Blue ones, pink ones, green ones, white ones, yellow ones. Three one-storeys, then a two-storey, then the ones again. Disappearing behind the oak trees, ducking into a shallow valley, rising out again.

         He watched a car make its way along newly laid, black asphalt roads that cut the gentle green meadows up like Pythagoras cut up the universe. Then another. Here a ‘61 Falcon, there a brand-new ‘62 Mercury wagon full of dogs and kids and Saturday morning grocery bags, here a ‘56 Buick with surfboard on top.

         He sat with blue jacket arms wrapped around knees, rocking back and forth in the new morning sun. His jeans were stained at the knees with mud and grass, his black Converse All-Stars soaked with dew so that his toes made squishy noises when he walked. His eyes were bright and brown, and his brown hair stuck out three-quarters of an inch from all sides of his head.

         A flock of crows laughed overhead, raucous complement to the short songs of meadowlarks in the brush. A couple of buzzards circled with deceptive laziness above a broad field spreading out below. Somewhere in the distance, lions roared. You could hear them late at night, and sometimes in the mornings, all the way across town from Jungleland, the zoo for movie star animals.

         Charlie Bogle took a deep breath of chilly morning air that tasted sharply of sage and chapparal, and he wondered about things. He wondered what he might be like when he was a teenager, like his two brothers. Or twenty---an adult! Or. . .forty! As old as his father! No, that could never happen---not for a hundred years, at least. . .

         He wondered a little about the world beyond the dumpling hills and rocky crests and purplish-blue mountains. He’d seen it from a car once or twice; he’d glimpsed Law Sangeles, and the beach, and the wide freeways and big movie theaters. But he didn’t wonder too much. That was where city people lived. Where adults looked worried and wore suits and kids looked like they knew too much. His world was full of oak trees and boys and girls with shiny faces and TV-show lunch pails who rode big happy orange-yellow buses into the morning sun.

         He looked down the big, chaparral-thick hill, over its curved slope that was just steep enough to make you have to zig-zag when you ran down, toward his house below. It was a comfortable house, but it was new and strange, and it had a different feeling about it at different times. Kind of depended on who was inside. If it was just him and his brothers, it was a place to eat whatever you wanted, watch TV whenever you wanted, call pals on the phone. If Pop was there, too, it was a place where he felt he belonged more than any other place in the world. If she was there, though, it didn't feel that way. He couldn’t put his finger on it. It was just different.

         It was a pink house, a simple, rambling three-bedroom layout with a peaked cathedral wood-shingle roof, friendly front windows, and a lawn well interrupted by fresh gopher mounds. It sat on top of a hill of its own, at the end of a long driveway, with a view of the whole town.

         The town was The Oaks, but he thought it should have been Ten Thousand Oaks, or Several Million Oaks, or Endless Oaks. From his bedroom window, he could look down on the soft fields, and his friends’ back yards, and his brothers’ new high school, and the winking red beacon of the radio station, and the oak trees that went on as far as you could see.

         It was kind of strange, living on top of a hill, because it made him feel apart from everybody. Kind of nice, yes, but kind of strange. But then, his parents seemed to like it that way. They were city people, who drove off to their jobs in Law Sangeles every day. They loved The Oaks, but they weren’t part of it, not the way he and all the other kids were.

         A commotion behind him. A scurrying. A thump-thump of feet on the packed earth and the crunch of a  broken bush, and. . .whoosh. A small brown dog zipped by, black shiny nose thrust forward, ears flattened,  paws digging into the wet ground, propelling itself forward. Just behind a spring-loaded jackrabbit not quite the size of a tomcat. Then. . .crunch and whoosh again as both disappeared into thick brush.

         “Come on, Sweetie,” he yelled. “Let’s go home.”

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