Photograph by James Hannibal
by Maggie Murray
Eric is a woodchuck.
It wasn’t his choice. Last week in biology, Mr. Burley, white lab coat stretched across his midriff like a grin, passed around a beaker of white paper slips, folded lengthwise, each labeled with a woodlands creature. Rabbits, shrews, coyotes; herbivores, omnivores, carnivores. The class had learned that the animal kingdom is tiered, much like middle school. It hadn’t felt that way last year, or even a few months ago. But some meanness was afoot in his classmates, as the girls’ bodies softened and the boys’ hardened. In this sense, picking woodchuck from all the possibilities within, from all the bobcats and black rat snakes – woodchuck – seemed apt to Eric; he is, after all, the woodchuck of the fifth grade.
Issue #18 soundtrack: The San Remo "Ackley"
But now as he runs deeper into the woods, alone, the sound of his sawing breaths and the muddy thwacks beneath his feet growing, and what surely is the woodchuck’s predominant state – panic – sharpening and prickling with each passing tree, he can’t help but marvel: how random that choice was, a bit of paper, like that, clinging to his fingertips. And how cruel.
It’s the final day of Fifth Grade Camp. One week every year, the 11 year-olds at Eric’s small school – newly hairy, tender in strange places – scratch bug-bites bloody at Santana, a wilderness camp rented for retreats. Team-building activities, intended to develop trust, composed the previous days. Blithe teenage counselors consistently paired Eric with the Boys He Made A Point Of Avoiding; these boys blindfolded him and yelled directions, laughing when he smacked into trees.
Nights were campfire macaroni and Pop-Tarts while listening to Pankaj discuss girls. “Now, Marisa,” Pankaj said, etching circles into the dirt, “is a total beefcake.” Beefcake, thought Eric; the term sounded somehow wrong applied to girls. But Pankaj had a swagger, a stiff-necked certainty when he’d said it – beefcake – that Eric had to nod in agreement. Pankaj – taller, worldlier, and now a hawk – must know a beefcake when he sees one. Beefcakes: blonde girls who wear short tees, exposing soft, birthmarked breaths of belly. Later, in the cabin bed, Eric thought about Marisa, her shadowed, impossible midriff, and stared at the crude words carved into his bunk.
The Game, a camp tradition, occurs just before the buses head home. The class divides according to the wildlife lottery; the herbivores receive green shirts, the omnivores, blue, and the carnivores, red. The Game lasts one hour. The objective: run from the outstretched arms of those higher on the food chain and collect tiny apple stickers from counselors at hidden feed stations. Get fewer than ten stickers: you starve. Run past the trail bordering the woods: you’re road kill. “Survival,” yelled Mr. Burley, presiding at the trailhead, before blowing his whistle, three sharp toots, to signal the herbivores’ head start.
Sunlight flares through branches and leaves, freckling the root-mangled ground with shifting sickles of light. The other rodents’ faces, foreheads ridged from asthma, and the smell of fire on a cold spring morning push Eric on. He’s learned that success means not feeling. He runs to a feed station, a yellow cart in a gulch rich with wood nettle and sedge, and reaches his card toward the counselor, already crowded by mice and deer.
At feed station three, Marisa, rabbit, a head taller and smelling of shampoo, elbows him sharply in the shoulder. She mumbles, “Sorry,” and turns her back to him.
It occurs to Eric, with a thrill: a beefcake just elbowed him; in this game, a beefcake must also run for her life.
When he, edged out of line, finally receives his sticker, another two cheeps sound: the omnivores are loose.
He watches Marisa stiffen and clamber, up the gully, over shrubs and grass. This is when Eric feels it, seizing up like a fist: dread. It is like a sudden knowing, knowing that he will, of course, die in this game and, though he dreads his classmates who seem more adept at this strange, middle school life than he and who lead him blindfolded into trees, he dreads the prospect of being tagged alone, dreads dying alone. Marisa, too, must understand that; why else does she run? And, just like that, he takes off after her, focused on her hair, clean and golden, slipping deeper into the underbrush.
And now a time of darting blue shirts, of rushes and of screams. Eric, resolute, pushes words from his head. Eventually, the whistle blows once again – the carnivores, thirty minutes more. Near the trail, Marisa realizes that Eric is following her, and she slows and turns. “Quit it, faggot!”
Eric halts. His mouth goes dry: he only wanted to lead her behind a safe ridge, just to talk, maybe to touch hands, and now he feels the cold stupidity of that hope. No; Marisa is no rabbit. She would never be lonely, would never understand his dread. He watches her toss her hair and run, once more, away from the trail, to a small clearing where the sun renders her head a terrible white. His problem, of course, was feeling. Faggot. Faggot.
And then, over in the clearing, Eric sees a red-shirted blur sweep upon Marisa and, poof, tag her. She screams – he distinctly hears “You creep.” When the two figures finally stand still, Eric realizes the red blur is Pankaj.
So this is death: Marisa passes her card to Pankaj, who can barely look at her. She rolls her eyes and walks off toward the trailhead, easy and slow. It seems, above all, like relief; she can go drink pop and yawn until everyone else joins her in death. The end: so simple, so certain, so fine.
And it occurs to Eric: why continue the lame hour – this glorified game of tag – when he could end the thing now and go, at ease, to tug at field grass, free of the brambles and shrieks? Why not skip this life part – the classmates’ terrible, pinched faces, this crash through dark branches that hid only death? He has three stickers; in twenty minutes, he’ll need seven more. By now red shirts surround all the food stations. They’ll find him if he sits and they’ll find him if he runs. It would be horrible, trapped by a mass of them – some of the Boys He Made A Point Of Avoiding lucked out as wolves, and they wouldn’t let an herbivore, shallow-chested and thin-boned, leave easy.
“Pankaj!” Eric yells. Pankaj, pocketing Marisa’s card, squints in Eric’s direction. He jogs over.
When four feet away, Pankaj stops. He looks perplexed. “Pankaj,” Eric says, “aren’t you going to tag me?”
“Well – Jesus.” Pankaj laughs uneasily. “You aren’t going to run?”
Eric feels a stab of annoyance. “Look, I hate this game. Just tag me already.”
Pankaj examines Eric, his neck craned. Slowly, he smirks, shaking his head. Eric’s stomach slumps like a diving board. “Hey,” Pankaj says, “hey, I’m not going to just tag you. I’m not going to let a sissy off easy.”
Eric takes a step forward and Pankaj jumps back, twice, then sprints away.
Eric is left alone.
All that’s left is the insects’ discordance. God, he thinks. The stupid thing wouldn’t end. It was, of course, because he’d been feeling again, because he’d wanted to be with people. What was the point? If only his brain could go blank and his blood could stop cold and he could be stiff and blank as a weed. If only he could just disappear.
And then he remembers: Mr. Burley, sipping coffee in his SUV, circling the trail. Road kill.
Eric runs again, straight, directed. His legs never felt so buoyant. He can see the trail from here, woodchips blanched and dreamy in the sun, like light, pure light, and he can feel himself slipping, so soon, from this animal body, this hairy, tender adulthood, and melting, impossibly, into space.
And so he runs to the edge of the world.
Maggie Murray is in her second year of a fiction MFA at Johns Hopkins. Her recent work has appeared in the Pacific Review and Wham City’s WORMS, and more is forthcoming in The Hopkins Review and in an audio project by an editor of Candor. She writes occasionally at ediblederangements.wordpress.com.
James Hannibal is a freelance photojournalist who photographs nature, portraits, sports, weddings, and anything that pushes the limits of what can be done with light and shadow. His photos have been published in over 20 publications and can be viewed at ShootAnyAngle.com.
The San Remo is an experimental, electronic group based out of Brooklyn, NY. Members also play in the band Tenements. Streaming and downloadable tracks can be found on their web pages: myspace.com/thesanremo & tenementsmusic.com.