I grew up in gold mining country. Where men went to the grocery store with shotguns strapped to their backs because in El Dorado County that’s what men did. No one had yards, but there were parcels of land. It was called “property.” Mustn’t wander off the property. Mustn’t trespass onto the neighbor’s property. One day, when I was eleven years old, I told my mother I was going in search of leprechauns. I had found a tree that definitely curved and gnarled into a portal to a fairy realm. But I had read fairy tales. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going that day, so I was afraid to climb inside the tree in case I couldn’t make it back again. I waited until March, because I thought of March as a fairy month.
When I went to search for the tree, I ducked under a barbed wire fence, red and loose with age. I followed the creek bed that had just enough water to gargle with. I saw the tree, set back from the others—enough to blend in, but far back enough to be remembered. As I started up the hill, a man with a mustache rode up fast on his horse—so fast that I hadn’t heard hooves on soft mud. He pointed a shotgun as long as I was tall at me and said to get off his property.
I trespassed onto that land again in June to find the tree. When I crossed the creek, it ate one of my shoes. Swallowed it whole. They were my favorite pair: acid washed with neon splattered drips of paint. I thought maybe it was a fairy test. That if I kept going, I’d be sure to find the portal. But when I rounded the hill, looking for that wide and gnarled tree with a child-sized hole in its belly, it was gone; no stump, not even a hole where its roots had once lived.
My mother said she wanted to make my last birthday in childhood special, so she drove three small children over a hundred miles to go to Marine World Africa USA. My seventh grade class had just taken a field trip there three months earlier. The concrete habitats so close to concrete freeways made the Pacific Ocean a distant memory. The smallness of the enclosures and the bigness of the mammals inside them made me want to steal something. Because we were straight-A students, we were able to convince ourselves that stealing would be a form of protest. So at a gift kiosk, I took a magnet shaped like an otter. As we walked around the park, it became apparent that her father had never tried to persuade her to keep a lost change purse that contained ten dollars in quarters. It had been my single greatest discovery in third grade. But I knew who the leather coin purse, in the shape of a moccasin, belonged to. The girl with blonde hair had always been mean to me. I remember when she brought the coin purse to class the first time, weeks earlier. She was showing it off to a crowd of our classmates, letting them all touch her new treasure. She had blond hair, was named after a mountain range spelled wrong, and claimed to be a quarter Navajo. I knew all about lies back then. I told kids at school I was born in Japan. I asked if I could hold it, and she grabbed it away from me, as though I was like Frank who didn’t bathe. She also shared her markers with everyone around her, except me, even though I sat immediately behind her. The day she forgot the coin purse, I knew she had ten dollars in quarters inside because she had been gloating about wanting to buy an ice cream at lunch, and I was glad she forgot. It didn’t have her name on it. I could claim it rightfully. It was more money than I had ever been given or earned. When I brought it home, my father made me dump it out and count the quarters. He said I could keep it. He said I’d be stupid to give it back, especially to someone like her. To this day, I am not sure if he was serious or if he was testing me, but the next morning, I gave it back to the girl whose parents had misspelled her name.
After having been able to walk away with the otter magnet in my pocket with no one noticing, I did not feel as vindicated as I thought I would. I had a fantasy of being apprehended and giving a speech about animal rights and how antithetical to the park’s mission of conservation it was to acquire and train wild animals. Being a straight-A student meant certain other straight-laced morals as well, and in the time it took us to take the magnet and walk a circle between the shark experience and beluga whales, my friend became sullen and withdrawn. I felt worse for her than even for myself, for I felt no guilt whatsoever, aside from bringing her in on my plan. I said that stealing a magnet was too small an act of protest, that it hadn’t effected the operations of the park at all, so I might as well put it back. And I did. I even told the cashier I had “accidentally” left with it earlier, and I was thanked instead of questioned.
Returning the magnet didn’t change my friend’s mood, though. She stopped being my friend after that anyway, and I didn’t really want to go back to Marine World Africa USA.
But my mom knew I loved animals. At this time, I wanted to be a veterinarian.