Two weeks out of a small, liberal arts college, Gwen found herself lost in the dark, somewhere in the deep woods of Wisconsin. She was one of two adults in charge of sheparding four inner city Chicago youths through a month of camping and basic survival skills. She was hired thanks to her recent degree, her fire building skills– a result of living on a remote farm in Indiana that was heated by wood–, and her homeschooled upbringing that centered on living independently from nearly everyone and everything.
It had rained steadily for the past three days, and even though she’d tried everything her survivalist father had taught her, the fires smoldered out and the boys had eaten their apple-cinnamon oatmeal packets cold and dry this very morning. They had hiked into their new campsite in the dark. The boys had gotten off track, and had turned the map upside down. Gwen was not allowed to assist them. The boys, street wise, wet and pissed off, chanced on the needed trail just as the threat of real violence sparked between Tarsh and Antonio. The rain had moved from a steady pounding to a light drizzle, and then stopped. Almost as one, like some strange, many armed and legged organism, the boys looked up at the sky. They were too tired to curse with the fluid proficiency that frightened her. They also all had blisters, and so they simply moved in a sort of shared misery, putting up their two person tents in the dark, unfolding their sleeping bags, stripping off their wet clothes, and putting on dry shorts. She and her boss, Richard rigged a clothesline in near silence, and the boys handed her their only set of real clothes. Richard made them wring out each article of clothing, and then Gwen snapped them the way she’d seen her mother do, and the way she did as soon as she turned eight, before hanging them carefully over the taunt rope. Tarsh was the smallest. His clothes looked like a true child’s, yet he was the most dangerous, the quickest to anger, lashing out with his scrawny, lightening quick limbs. Antonio was Tarsh’s younger brother, but he was a head taller and well muscled. Tarsh was by turns cruel to and protective of his brother and Antonio weathered it all with a patience Gwen thought no 14 year old should know. Benedict was tall and reedy and silent, his big head balanced on a slender neck that Gwen found herself wanting to place her hand gently against. His hands and feet were also ridiculously large. He tripped frequently and seemed always a bit off balance. Denarius’ t-shirt was almost as large as a two-person tent. Gwen had to fold it in quarters to get it to fit on the remaining rope. His jeans could fit two of her at least, and she was strong, “meaty” her father used to say proudly. Something flared inside her heart, not maternal exactly, but admiration and some other blue flamed emotion because these kids had slogged through five days of the absolute unfamiliar before crawling into their loaned sleeping bags wordlessly. She had done the same after urging them to drink water.
Her boss, a man in his forties with a scraggly beard and 15 years of summers overseeing rotating groups of “Hoods in the Woods”, his words though not the official program name, had made light of pooping on the first day. He instructed the boys to dig a hole when the need arose, six inches deep, shit, and then place their “soiled” toilet paper in a freezer bag. The toilet paper roll itself was smashed to fit into a fanny pack with the freezer bag. Denarius, the obese, 6′ 2″ high school sophomore had laughed uproariously. “I will never, ever, freezer bag my shit paper, dude. Never. It. Ain’t. Happening. Fuck that.”
Richard had smiled, small and compressed, in a way that scared Gwen. “You fucking will,” he stated, “or you’ll go the fuck back to juvie and your fucking sad lives and I’ll take a fucking vacation.” Gwen held her breath, shocked.
The boys were all from the same juvenile detention center. Gwen understood it was the only real card Richard had to keep them from beating him down in a true mutiny. After five days, Gwen thought a beat down might be deserved. Richard was an asshole. He’d explained patiently that if Gwen stayed on, returned each summer, the boys would bleed into one sad stereotype. “Save yourself the time and heartache,” he told her the day before the boys arrived, “do not get to know them. You get them for a month and then they’re gone. And most of them seriously are gone for good. Like dead gone or prison gone. Our job is to teach them how to build a fire and set up a tent and cook and navigate in the woods. But most of them are lost for good. So don’t go feeling sorry for them. Think of them as what they are: offenders.”
Gwen did not know why they were in juvie, only told that none of the boys were sexual offenders or extremely violent. Once they arrived, she was hyper aware of how white she was–how pale, how quiet, how female. The boys were gorgeous browns with hair she wanted to touch for the texture and the shapes razored into the sides and backs. They all clustered around Denarius, their nucleus. He was the most beautiful color, the nearest to inky black. She felt ashamed for noticing, for admiring, but more so because in the entire span of her short life, she had never known an African-American, male or female. Her life had been one informed by isolation, shaped by a rural landscape in which it was more natural to be alone than to be with others. In college, it became clear that this was not the norm. Gwen did not know if she preferred solitude or if it was simply what she was most accustomed to. She wanted to think she’d applied for and accepted this job to grow and change, to “transform” as the brochure promised, but it was the only job she was offered, and after living four years in the dorm, her belongings could fit in a large backpack. In all honesty, she had nowhere to go.
Denarius’ face was wide and always shiny with sweat, so he mopped it with his t-shirt, pulling the stretched out neck up to his forehead and then wiping straight down with both hands. He took up the most space, needing his own tent, but he did not apologize for it. The rest of the boys were slight, and did not know how to carry their bodies with the confidence or wherewithal that De had. He was a workhorse, De, and he’d slowly gather what the other boys could not carry, even though his size meant he walked the slowest and acted as caboose. Gwen wanted desperately for him to respect her. No. She wanted him to like her. It would say something about her efficiency, her ability, her command of survival skills. De was responsible for the shit-pack, and due to his size, wore it on his upper bicep. She watched the boys approach De, how he made them work for the fanny pack, how mercilessly he made them beg. She wasn’t ready to ask him for toilet paper. She didn’t know how she’d ask. Her other option was asking Richard for her own roll, but that seemed worse somehow. More demeaning. At the next grocery store run, still days off, she planned to buy her own four pack of toilet paper.
Even though she was drinking her body’s weight in water, and eating high fiber, easy to make camp food like bean burritos, by will and mental fortitude she had simply decided not to poop. Not so the guys would know or detect. She used her ferocious will to ignore her own body, until the very real, desperate urge passed. It was in this way that she found herself starting awake, dawn-early on the morning of the sixth day, with full knowledge of the fact that she would shit herself if she didn’t go into the woods and purge five days worth of oatmeal and dried fruit and canned beans and tuna on crackers. She grabbed her flashlight, a bandanna, and on her way out of camp, saw the shovel De had left by the tree. They had been digging irrigation trenches. She walked as far from camp, as fast and quietly as possible, bypassing her hiking boots. No time could be wasted, plus she had gone barefooted, until weather would no longer permit it, her entire life.
She crossed a small stream, almost running, and found a level spot. She half-heartedly stepped on the shovel. The blade sunk into the saturated earth. She held her flashlight in her mouth, her teeth bearing down to hold the beam steady. She slung the dirt past the beam of light, then pushed her shorts and underwear down and sat back on her heels. She could pee in the out of doors with ease, but it had been years since she pooped outside. She felt light headed from squatting, and exerting, and then in seconds it was the pleasure of ease and relief. Sweet Jesus. The relief. She wanted to laugh out loud, but she had no idea how far away from camp she actually was. Finished, she wiped carefully with her bandanna, buried it with her excrement, and covered everything over.
Her father had taught her to pay attention to the animal scat she encountered on their farm as evidence of the life that was all around her and often unseen. He taught her there was no shame in her body; it a vessel for the something more she actually was. But in college, she was shy, having always been alone, having never seen another naked girl beyond the segmented self she was able to see in the small hand held mirror her mother had passed on to her. College had been continual discomfort and newness to be navigated and figured out. She got up early to shower, used the bathroom only when it was vacant, arrived always early to class, and answered questions only when she was directly asked. She thought it had been about modesty, but now she was unsure. She was in the middle of an unknown wilderness because she did not want De to know she pooped or because she could not bring herself to ask someone for a roll of toilet paper. She was still a great mystery to herself.
It was only after she tamped the dirt down, and then went so far as to scatter leaves and sticks to camouflage the freshly turned earth, that she realized she had circled round in the process and in fact had no idea in which direction to head. She guessed. She had no map and simply mouthed, “Cross the stream, straight ahead.” So she did, she walked carefully, feeling light and capable, but 15 minutes after she had crossed a stream, there was no sign of camp.
She turned around then, tried to retrace her steps, but it was dark in a way that scared her now. She crossed the stream, but there was nothing to gauge where she was. She listened for Tarsh’s snores. Scanned for light. Gripped the wood of the shovel for comfort and reassurance. Then, she did what her father had told her to do. Find a place to sit, warm and dry, and if he was not near enough to see or hear, to call for him. She was 22 years old, lost in Wisconsin.
She had no sense of time. She remembered her first year at college; her French teacher had used the clichéd phrase “no sense of time” when recounting her own survival story. Madame Trochond had inadvertently gone off of a trail in California and was lost for 72 hours. She was found unconscious and severely dehydrated by backcountry campers. “So close to morte,” the teacher had murmured, and so Gwen called out, first a whisper and then loudly, her voice wobbly with panic, one word, “Help” shrieked, not caring if De or Richard heard. Hoping, in fact, they would.
Then there were the sounds of twigs snapping, the trashing sound of branches being pushed aside, and not far off a dancing light. “Are you hurt?” a deep voice called.
“No,” she yelled, “No.”
“Stay put, ” the voice replied, “and keep calling. Not loudly. I can hear you.”
“Thank you,” she said, then again until it was a mantra. She held her flashlight with both hands as though it had the power to warm her. She was shaking.
He was bare chested when he arrived, wearing only running shorts and Tevas. He was handsome, his hair in a military style crew cut, and older than Gwen. He had a sleeve tattoo that covered his entire left arm. Before he could say anything, she stammered an explanation, “I got lost. I had to go to the bathroom. We made camp in the dark. I thought I knew where I was.” He gingerly reached for her elbow and guided her up from the stump she was sitting on. He tracked the surrounding grounds with the flashlight, let go of her elbow and reached for the shovel. “Is this for protection?” he smiled. Gwen shrugged. She was mortified now. “Follow me,” he said, “I’ll take you to my camp. We’ll figure out where you’re at.” She was relieved to follow someone, to be told what to do. They walked, not far, perhaps four minutes, slapping mosquitoes and listening to the insects and frogs. His camp was a one-person tent, and there was movement within. Gwen felt fear rise up like bile. She was a woman alone.
“My dog,” the man said. “Her name’s Scout. I’m Kevin.” He unzipped his tent and a large black lab skidded out, tail thumping.
“I’m Gwen.” She stood there while Scout sat at her feet, glad she had somewhere to look, something to do with her hands.
“Let me put a shirt on and we’ll walk up to the picnic area. There’s a map there with all the trails and campsites. I better leash her first. Just in case. If she smells a deer, someone else might be lost too, and I guarantee, not so easy to find. She’s a service dog, but all bests are off if she spots a deer. I’m not sure I could find my way without her.”
The silence settled once they began walking again. Kevin said, “Worst feeling, being lost. It happened once to me, but I wasn’t alone. I had my guys. And we were armed with more than shovels.” He turned to her and she shined her flashlight in his face, automatically. It was a nice face, but his eyes were closed so she couldn’t see what color they were or if he was making fun of her. As the beam skidded from his face she noticed a jagged scar beginning at the side of his left jaw and lightening down his neck.
“I’m sorry,” she said, lowering the light so it was a concentrated, perfect circle on the ground.
“We had maps though. We knew how to read them. And we radioed in. It was just a matter of time. Same for you. You would have figured it out.”
Gwen was not so sure. She knew he was trying to reassure her. It made her feel worse. She shivered, her feet wet, and felt her nipples against her t-shirt. She didn’t have a bra on and more stupidly, she was bare footed. It’s humiliating. Her father would have exhaled heavily in a way that always hurt more than words. “You know better,” would come when his breathing had evened; plain speech, and in this instance she wouldn’t be able to argue. She did know better. Shame pooled in her belly. There were moments when her betrayal, her leaving him for the world of social workers and education and store bought clothes following her mother’s death seemed to dawn powerfully, as though her departing had been yesterday and not six full years ago.
The trail turned to gravel and then paved blacktop, and finally there were streetlights providing a pale shower of light. Kevin’s eyes were dark, and the scar disappeared under his shirt, zigzagging the entire length of his neck and clavicle. He walked with a nearly imperceptible limp on the left side. Surreally, there stood a playground area and two shower houses and a bait shop and a lone pay phone. Gwen felt drunk and stumbling, so discombobulated that she began to cry. She wiped away the tears furiously, pressing the palms of her hands hard to her eyes. She was so certain they were in the wild, and here, so nearby were cold sodas in sweating cans and plastic tubs of earth and night crawlers, and real showers and toilets that flushed. Randy had been here before, many times. He had known and said nothing. She was as dumb and lumbering as one of the teenagers. As far out of her depths. Worse maybe.
There was a large map of the area, and Kevin used his thumb as a pointer. “You are here,” he read aloud. Then he traced the path they took from his campsite. “Now,” he asked gently, “where do you need to go? Where are your people?”
Gwen realized this was the question, and she could not admit aloud that she did not have the answer. Here was a man, a stranger, also wounded, and she wanted to tell him she was good and desperately lost, not just here in Wisconsin, but completely. Her father’s land sold, he had set out for North Dakota in his truck to start anew with the promise that the state welcomed men who held his way of thinking. She had no address for him. Her mother dead six years and still that loss was as fresh as the soil she’d turned with the shovel’s blade. What could she do really with a degree in English Lit? Where would she go? How does one go about constructing a life? She shrugged at Kevin, and then at the sky, which was beginning to break with a thin line of blue light. She turned her back to him then, afraid her face was still visibly wet. As she did so, she saw movement on the play ground, a large, hulking shadow took shape in a swing, pushing off. It took a moment, but the being took flight, and Gwen could see De’s huge, white shoes moving through the night like some beacon, his massive legs pumping, his huge body a pendulum swinging back and forth. How to explain the sudden surge of gladness that coursed through her body, the urge to run toward De as though he were family? She heard then a voice, crystalline, a sweet honey tenor singing, “If you ever change your mind/About leaving, leaving me behind/Oh-oh, bring it to me/Bring your sweet loving/Bring it on home to me, yeah yeah yeah.” This was not the voice De spoke with. It was a voice that rose up and couldn’t ever be reigned in. She’d been given a secret to keep and protect. She knew this song, a Sam Cooke tune her mother had loved, had sung in their wood heated home, in the glow of light not electrically produced. The song was evidence her mother once had a life lived in another place, another time. There was no home beyond what she carried in her mind, Gwen thought, no home beyond where she was right now.
Kevin seemed not to have heard. She bent to scratch Scout’s ears. “I’m good,” she said. “Thanks, Kevin. I know where I am now.”
“I’ll get you there,” Kevin offered. “Show me on the map?” And Gwen said simply, “No. I got it. Thanks, really.”
She imagined De leading the way back, and once they were at camp, both sitting back on their haunches, as she showed him how to build a fire. Even in the dark, even when the wood was damp, beginning with only a tiny nest of twigs, the smallest flame well tended, would soon blaze.