'The Woods'

J. Shepard Trott

      Red watched the field, a period of blue-gray mist that ended where the black trees began. There were a lot of trees. Their black shadows cut into the blue sky like dog teeth. The bigness of it all, the sky and trees, made him feel crazy, like he was little, but maybe he could grow or run and fill the whole place with himself. The figures that ran through the field, yelling, laughing, screaming and arguing seemed like ants, sounded like whispers in the vastness of the space. He stood still, one hand on a tree trunk in the shadows watching the field. His brother had once said to him, “When you come across something you ain't seen, you gone be afraid. You got to go right up the lane—take it straight to the hole.”

      The flag was marked by one flashlight pointing upward. The column of light looked solid close to the ground, but faded in the bigger darkness of the sky. Red thought, “Nobody is watching this line. I can make a clean run for the flag. No one is even on this side of the field. These kids are all slow as hell, even if they did see me.”

      He began to run through the long grass, taking long strides while bent toward the ground pushing his feet, feeling the breeze clip his cheeks, his arms swinging, thinking, “Push, push the ground with your toes, I'm close to it. There's no one around. I'm gone just grab it, run back to no man's land, and these kids with Dino bikes will all see how I do. They be like, ‘Yo, Red, he run a mile a minute!'”

      Red had only been at camp a few days and he liked it. He liked the food, the campfire with the stories, and best of all, he liked to swim in the lake. He went there during free time everyday. The lake was different than the pool in his neighborhood. He could open his eyes in the lake, and it wouldn't hurt them later. He couldn't see far down there. The water was the color of iced tea, and smelled of forest, good on his skin when he sat on the wood pier drying in the warmth of the June sun. The bottom of the lake was covered with leaves that felt scary and slippery on his feet. The other kids said that there were snapping turtles in the lake, that would eat any kid they caught, but the same kids still swam in there so he knew they were lying.   He still didn't like it when his feet hit those strange feeling leaves.

      Red was only twenty feet from the flag; he was already imagining the way he would plant his foot to pivot once he got his hands it. Suddenly, someone stood up in front of him, tackling him with a bear hug and they tumbled together into the grass. He lay surprised, while the mysterious tackler untangled him.

      “Gotcha, Red.”

      “Where the hell you come from?”

      “Come on, come back to the base.”

      This kid thought he was so smart, with his little, “Gotcha, Red.” Red punched the kid in the belly and ran away.

      The kid yelled after him, “You can't do that. It's against the rules.”

      “Fuck you,” Red shouted, over his shoulder.

      Back in no man's land, watching the enemy territory, Red thought about the kid rising out of the grass. “I jumped like a girl just because some bitch surprised me. It must be these messed up woods.”

      The trees creaked, whispering in their language, laughing. They saw everything, they knew what Red couldn't see, that the flag was protected. That's what they talked about, how stupid he was for thinking it would be that easy to get the flag.

      Red muttered to them, “Fuck you too, trees.”


      The games counselor did not need Matt's nodding head to know that Sean was telling the truth. Sean had been coming to the camp for longer than the counselor, and the counselor had never known him to lie. “Oh well,” he thought, as he blew his whistle. Kids started to gather around him. It took the last ones five minutes to get to the counselor. They stood in a big circle around him, and he moved the flashlight around the circle of faces. People were complaining about the stop in the game, “I had crawled half way across the field.” Sean saw Red creep up carefully and stand just outside the circle of light thrown by the games counselor's flashlight.

      The camp counselor said, “I told you guys the rules. I said if anybody didn't obey the rules, then they would talk to me. Red, I need to talk to you. Okay, everyone, go back to the game, and no cheating.”

      As everyone ran screaming away, Red said, “I didn't do nothing.”

      Sean said, “You punched me and ran away after I ambushed you.”

       “You little punk snitch.”

      The games counselor interrupted, “Sean, go back to the game. Red, I told everyone that if they didn't obey the rules, then they would spend free time washing dishes tomorrow. So tomorrow, you are washing dishes. Play by the rules, and no one will have anything to tell on you.”

      The counselor walked away, dragging Red with him. Red reached an arm behind his back, and gave Sean the finger.

      Sean shouted, “Counselor, Red, he just . . .”

      “Sean, that's enough. Back to the game.”


      Four hours later, after the game, after the night story, Red lay in bed, thinking, “What the hell, snitches and bitches up here.” He would have to wash dishes instead of going swimming in the quiet lake, below the water. In a pool, blue and white, there was the sound of a thousand churnings, legs, filters, and hands. The lake was golden and silent. It filled him up with quiet, to take a deep breath, and sink, looking up.

      Tomorrow, his hands would be in the blue sink, sponging down white plates, while the cook criticized his washing. Sean had had to wash dishes his second day at camp, also. Some other snitch told because he had taken some gum from their bag. That cook had high standards for dish washing.

      He could hear the cabin counselor snoring. His brother could kick that stupid games counselor's ass. All his cabinmates were sleeping. He could hear their breathing, soft and even. The kid Sean slept in the next cabin. He wished his mom had let him buy a flashlight, but she said that was the point of camping, getting away from electric lights. She probably just didn't want to spend the money.

      His brother would say, “Somebody disrespect you, you can't have that. You need to do something, you need to remember your business.”

      The other kids in the camp wouldn't respect him if he didn't get his. He wouldn't respect himself either. If people were going to be telling on him, he had to do something. He had to remember his business.

      He swung his feet off the bed, and slipped his sneakers on. Naked except for his sneakers and underwear, he tiptoed to the door. It creaked as he opened it, and he stopped, listening for any stirring. The cabin counselor's snoring came thick and steady. He eased through the door, and gently pushed it closed.

      The darkness covered the ground and the sky outside. He could see just dim outlines, lots of shapes that could be anything. He could hear cries in the night, not just the crickets, but hoots and other noises like the noises of something walking quietly through the leaves. There had been a story around the campfire. There used to be a panther here, its spirit was angry because the kids had taken its woods. “It's just a story for kids,” he told himself.

      He began to walk toward the next cabin. He could see its black outline among the trees. He began to jog toward it. He increased his speed and suddenly found himself face down in the dirt. He thought something had grabbed him, and turned, waiting for the panther in silence. Then he realized that he had only tripped on a root. He felt the strawberry on his knee, and heard again all the creatures gabbling and screaming into the night as he scrambled up and ran faster toward the cabin.

      When he got to the cabin he opened the door faster than he intended to, just wanting to be inside. He walked in, leaving the door open. It was totally quiet; there was no movement. The cabin was the same as his own, one single bed for the cabin counselor by the door, and two bunk beds in the corners for the four cabinmates. The cabin counselor's bunk was empty. He looked in the lower bunks, and saw the sleeping faces of Matt, and another kid he didn't know. He took two steps up the ladder to one bunk. Sean's sleeping face poked out from the blanket. He scaled the ladder quickly, straddled Sean so that his knees pinched the arms of the sleeping figure, and put a hand over his mouth and started throwing his free fist as quickly as he could into Sean's face. It felt soft against his fist.

      When Sean's eyes opened in alarm, Red hissed, “This is for telling, you girl.”

      After three swings, one which landed solidly on a cheek, another which hit forehead, and a third which Sean parried with his arm, Sean managed to get a scream through the hand covering his mouth. As the forms in the other beds sat up, Red doubled his blows, no longer bothering to cover Sean's mouth. Sean held his arm over his face, Red pounded on his chest. One of the roommates turned on the lights, revealing the struggle in the upper bunk.

      Sean yelled, “Help me. This guy is beating me up!”


      Red went to brush his teeth before breakfast. He glanced into the mirror before he put the paste on the brush, and stopped. His whole face was swollen with patches of blue and yellow skin. When he saw the damage he felt it, the throbbing in his cheekbones and lips. He washed off all the blood he could find and went into the mess hall. He sat at the far end of the table from where his counselor sat and put one hand up next to his face and tried to eat his cereal quickly.

      The counselor started explaining the day's activities to the table. He saw that Red was not looking at him. He said, “Red, are you okay?”

      Red mumbled, “I'm fine, counselor.”

      The counselor said, “Look at me.” Red looked up at him, showing him his whole face. Then he smiled. It hurt like hell to smile.

      “Oh my goodness!” the counselor gasped, “What happened to your face?”

      “I fell down the mess hall stairs.”

      The counselor stared at Red in shock. He said, “Like heck you did. Who did this?”

      “You calling me a liar? I fell down the steps.”

      “Come on. We're going to the nurse. She'll tell you that you didn't fall down any steps to get those bruises.”

      “I don't need no nurse. I'm good.”

      “Red, come on. It's for your own good.”

      The nurse's cabin had white walls, not walls made of boards like the others. It was cool in there too. The nurse was a big woman and she felt Red's bruises with her big soft hands. They were cool against the hot blood pumping through the bruised skin. She said, “Who's been beating you, honey?”

      “I told him already,” Red jerked his head at the counselor, “I just fell down the steps.”

  She was quiet, washing the cut over the cheekbone. Then she went and found a bag of ice. “Here,” she said, “Hold that against your cheek and eyes. It should cut down on the swelling a bit.” She turned to the counselor, “Take him to the superintendent. He'll talk to him.”

      The superintendent told Red to sit down, he said, “Hello, Red. I think you know I'm the superintendent of this camp. Now, I see that last night you had a run in of sorts. Now be honest with me. I am not going to punish you for someone else fighting you, right? There is nothing to be afraid of.”

      Red said, “I fell.”

      The superintendent said, “Fighting is not good, Red. I need to know what happened so I can deal with it.”

      Red tried to smile again. The superintendent turned to the cabin counselor and said, “Ask the kids if anyone else knows who did this or would like to confess.”

      Red looked at his kicks. He thought that he could use a new pair. His mom had said that they was just going to get messed up more at camp, and she would buy him a new pair when he got home, but the other kids didn't have beat sneakers like him.

      “Look at me, Red. If you don't tell the truth, I am going to make you wash dishes during free time, until you tell me.”

      Red looked at the superintendent. He remained silent. He knew his older brother would say, “You got problems, you solve them. Don't be snitching.” He looked into the superintendent's eyes, which were blurred by thick glasses.

      The superintendent said, “I'm only going to ask one more time. If you won't cooperate I will put you on dish washing duty until you tell me who did it.”

      “I ain't a snitch.”

      The superintendent said, “Red, either you tell me what really happened to your face, or...I am sending you home. You will not be able to come back to this camp. I think you and I both know you got a free chance to come to our camp. It would be very foolish and sad if you wasted that chance. But we must have cooperation. If you aren't going to be honest with me, then how can I make sure things are right here. So tell me, who hit you?” The superintendent thought that this final threat would prompt the small boy in front of him to talk.

      Red looked at him behind his thick glasses that made his eyes look big and alien. He liked some things about camp. During the day, the woods looked interesting, the big trees, and the quiet under them and their scent, like fresh things, like green growing, and the way some boys had shown him to skip rocks across the lake, and you could find snakes and salamanders, and toads by flipping rocks. He would turn over a rock, and a whole world of pill bugs and snakes and newts was revealed. He liked swimming in the lake, where the water was see-through brown, where, if he opened his eyes under water, and looked up, things were sun hit and golden. The superintendent smiled at him.

      Red said, “I fell down the stairs.”

      The superintendent threw up his hands. He had given the kid a chance. There was nothing more he could do. An hour later, Red sat in the passenger seat of a counselor's car who was going down to the city for the weekend. He slouched down in the seat watching the boys running wildly down the wooden dock before jumping, flailing their arms, and plummeting into the lake. Then Red looked up at the sky. He would not look at the lake anymore.


      Sean peered from behind the boathouse at Red's head in the car. He saw Red's mouth moving. He saw only the lips, he could not hear the words, but he could guess what the words were, a strung out invective pushed out at the car window, at the camp, and at the world. He wondered why Red was not crying. Sean would cry if he were leaving camp.

      The parents and teachers and counselors knew what was right. They would fix the problems. He didn't understand the angry kid staring at the sky, saying hard little things with his quick lips. Then the counselor emerged from the cabin, slung a bag in the backseat, and shoveled himself into the driver's seat. The car started down the road and took Red away from the camp.