Fiction

The Camp

  • -----------------------------------
  • By Natalie Lubson '13
  • nlubson13@amherst.edu
  • Volume XXXIV, Issue 3, December 14, 2012

Be home before dark!” Mother calls through the still-swinging screen door. We don’t bother to look back; we leap into the mid-afternoon sun, race past the meadow, and dash into the woods. It’s been a while, but the forest feels just as exciting and mysterious as it always does. 

There are little patches of light, but mostly shadows, and the air smells like water. We slow down at the brook, breathing hard. Andy scoops up mud with a stick and flings it at the trees. 

“What shall we do?” I say. Andy always takes charge of our adventures. One day last summer, he woke me early in the morning and we hiked all day to find the wrecked airplane near the top of the mountain. We played among the metal scraps and did our best imitations of the pilot as he crashed: “Mayday, mayday—I can’t see anything! Whoops, there’s a tree—aaaaaaaagh!” We always ended with his dying screams and then fell to the ground giggling. 

“Let’s play hide-and-seek,” says Andy. “You hide, I’ll seek.” 

“Okay. But you have to count to one hundred and no peeking.” I know I can find a good hiding place given enough of a head start. 

“One, two, three, four…” 

I run, but quietly, so as not to tell him where I’ve gone. I wind my way up along the streambed until I see a dense patch of ferns. They are tall and lush around a shallow pond. I take a few steps forward and slip on a wet patch of grass. I hit the ground hard and hear a sudden chorus of plopping sounds from the pond. There must have been frogs and I scared them away. It’s a real shame because I like frogs. 

Crawling forward, I crouch among the big ferns and look out at the still pond. I like it here among the ferns. I like it here at the Camp. It’s no Disneyland, but I always feel the same little thrill when we load the station wagon and drive up into the mountains. The cabin that Daddy built is small and bare, but it doesn’t matter. I love the meadow and the trees and the solitude. 

I see movement in the water and watch as the mud along the bottom stirs and a frog makes his lazy way to the surface. He faces me, his head just barely out of the water. His eyes are wide and yellow. I widen my eyes too, but stay perfectly still. I like the way his long frog legs dangle loosely behind him. 

With shallow breath I watch the bottom of the pond begin to swirl. Slowly, silently, the frogs emerge. My eyes dart all around as they rise like specters from the mud. A sudden croak startles me and I flinch, but the frogs don’t disappear. One takes a mighty leap and lands in the reeds just below me. I stay frozen, my heart beating faster. 

“Janie!” My brother’s voice is distant. “Come out, come out wherever you are.” 

I don’t want him to find me. For one thing, I prefer hiding to seeking; I love the stillness but not the search. That, and I really don’t want him to scare away the frogs. They are all around me now. I can see their delicately webbed toes and the smooth pulsating flesh of their throats. Their green backs are covered in darker gray spots, like army uniforms. I hear rustling noises and the snap of a twig and a few of them shrink beneath the surface. 

“Janie are you in there?” He’s quite close now. “Aha! Gotcha!” He grabs one of my feet and I twist my body quickly to stop him. 

“Andy, shhh! You’re scaring away the frogs.” 

“Frogs! Oh cool.” He lowers his voice to a whisper and pulls me up. “Here, you stay back, I’ll catch one.” 

“Wait—don’t—” He is already tiptoeing forward. I see him crouch by the water, ready to pounce like our tomcat when he’s hunting field mice in the meadow. 

“Gotcha!” He stands up, triumphant; a fat frog struggles to free himself from a cage of fingers. 

“Let me hold him,” I beg. I want to let the frog go but I also want to feel his cool webbed feet on my palms. 

“In a bit.” 

I watch with envy as my brother peers at his squirming prey. 

His face twists in disgust. “Gross! It peed on me!” 

A thin line of clear liquid trickles down his hand. Then his wrist jerks sharply and sends the frog hurtling through the air. I hear a wet smack as the frog hits a pine tree and watch it fall to the ground. I turn on my brother, shrieking. “Andy, you’ve killed it!” 

He is wiping his hand on his jeans but his eyes are wide and serious. “Janie, I didn’t mean to,” he says. “Maybe it’s not dead.” 

We inch forward together toward the tree. The frog is splayed belly up on the soft earth. His limbs look funny and there’s a hole in one side of him leaking fluids. His smooth white gullet isn’t moving. An empty feeling clutches at my throat. 

“Janie, I’m sorry.” Andy places one hand on my shoulder. “It was an accident.” 

I mostly believe him, but I’m not ready to tell him so. I shake off his hand–the deadly one–and then turn and run for home. 

In the kitchen Mother is fixing dinner and my sister Deb is making pie with the apples we bought at the roadside stand. 

“Jane, have you seen Heidi?” Deb says, looking up from her cutting board. 

“No. He’s probably out in the meadow, killing things.” Heidi is Deb’s cat. She won him years ago at the State Fair, and she begged Mom and Dad to let her bring him home. The girly name she gave the cute, fuzzy kitten stuck before we realized he was a vicious tom. He comes home with cuts and scratches from his fights with other cats, not to mention the mice, lizards, and birds he leaves at the back door. 

“Hey Janie, do you want to help me stir?” Deb holds out a mixing bowl. She and Mother are always trying to teach me to cook, and knit, and sew. 

“No thanks.” I duck out of the room. 

“Don’t go far Janie,” Mother calls. “Dinner will be ready soon.” 

I sit outside on the stoop and see Heidi slinking through the grass. I call to him and he turns his battered old head towards me. I get down on the ground and crawl closer, stretching out one hand. His head cocks like he’s thinking it over but then he strolls forward, his orange tail twitching. He sits in front of me and lets me gently scratch his chest. I feel burrs and other things snagged there that I’m sure Deb will tenderly tease out later tonight. 

At the edge of my vision I see Andy emerge from the woods into the fading light. His hands are in his pockets and he’s whistling birdcalls—whip-poor-will and mourning dove. I stare intently at Heidi’s tangled chest hair and pick out bits of dead grass. The birdcalls stop.

“Hi Janie,” he says, standing over me. I pretend not to hear him, but we both know that I can. He gives up, clomps up the porch steps, and goes inside. 

At dinner we pass the pork chops, green beans and boiled potatoes around the table to fill our plates. Deb comes rushing in last, having just stuck her apple pie in the oven. We hold hands so Mother can say a prayer. I bow my head but find myself staring at my glazed pork chop. 

“Bless, O Lord…”

I know I’m supposed to be thinking about God and all His blessings, but right now I’m thinking about exactly one blessing; it smells sweet and smoky and I can’t wait for the first bite. 

“Through Christ our Lord, Amen,” she says at last. There is a clatter of silverware as we attack our plates. 

 “So Janie, Andy, what did you do all day?” Mother asks, just a hint of accusation in her tone. 

“We played hide-and-seek.” 

“Andy killed a frog!” I blurt, turning to glare at him. 

“Gross.” Deb gives us both a look that says she has moved on from our childish games. 

“Well that’s… unfortunate,” says Mother. 

“It was an accident!” says Andy. He’s staring not at Mother, but at me, with a mix of anger and that same wide-eyed plea. A little guilt tugs at me for ratting him out. He’s my pushy big brother but he’s also my best friend in the world, and we have a kind of secret pact against the meddling of Deb and Mother. 

“I guess it was,” I mumble, and turn back to my pork chop. 

After dinner I sit on the porch in the faded green rocking chair, smelling the wood smoke from the house and listening to the insects in the trees. I close my eyes and imagine the grasshoppers holding tiny violins. I once saw a picture of a grasshopper with a violin in a book but I don’t remember the story. It doesn’t really sound like an orchestra, but I like it anyways, all the little chirps and stirrings. I hear another sound and snap my eyes open; it’s the thin whine of a mosquito near my ear. I slap at my neck and head but then I see it float forward to land on my thigh. With a calculated jab I smash it beneath my index finger. I feel a swift sense of satisfaction, knowing I’ve killed it. And then I see the dark gray smear and the red splatter of blood and almost wish I hadn’t. Maybe this is what it feels like to be God. You look down at a world full of tiny ant-people and—Splat!—wipe one out with your fingertip. Then you sprinkle down some pork chop blessings and hope the rest of them are happy. 

The screen door squeaks and a few heavy footfalls sound behind me and I know that it’s Andy. Lean callused hands descend over my eyes. 

“Guess who!” His voice is shrill in a crude imitation of Mother/Deb and I find myself giggling. 

“Heidi!” I squeal. His face drops down next to mine and it’s wearing a sly cat smile.

“How did you know?” 

“The smell.” I wrinkle my nose and he laughs, but then his face turns mock serious. 

“You know what we still need to do this summer?” 

“What?”

“Catch fireflies.” He sweeps one arm out, and I follow his gaze towards the meadow and the forest. Sure enough, the tall grass and the spaces between the trees are peppered with tiny yellow lanterns that wink on and off. I hold up both hands and Andy pulls me to my feet.  We walk forward together until we are standing in the heart of the meadow, surrounded by the flashing fireflies. One blinks on near my face and I reach up quickly, but it just as quickly blinks out. Its dark outline is barely visible against the night sky, but I follow it with my eyes and my feet. Descending, it gleams yellow again and my cupped hands are waiting to embrace it. I peek at it between my thumb and forefinger, but it is too dark to see the red around its head or the gold stripes on its wings. I turn around and Andy has one too. We walk towards one another, each with our own glowing treasure and then open our hands. They lift off together and flicker into the night. 

 

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