“Gio, these shells need to go into the nutshell basket.”
I glance pointedly at the overturned cast iron lid filled with shards of fire-blackened almond shells.
“Those aren’t mi-ine,” Gio squeaks, somewhere between a bird and a mouse, one of the plethora of voices in his estimable repertoire.
“Gio, I watched you roast the nuts, crack them, eat them, and put your shells in there.” Squatting with his tummy sticking out between his knees as he helps Zander saw off chunks of bearfat into a pot, Gio gives me a serene smirk, and ignores me.
Something hard and sharp starts to rise out of my inner depths. I take a breath and let it go, my waters receding, calm, still. There will be another opportunity.
The children are a culture within our greater camp culture, and for the next eight suns I have been granted a visa into a strange, foreign land. I’m in the children’s food drop. My allotment of the food we don’t forage, which is provided by the support center, is divided with theirs, apportioned by their rules, cooked with theirs, and eaten on an entirely different schedule. A few adults are periodically rotating in to experience the children’s culture and support them around the hearth –help them motivate themselves to gather their firewood and fresh boughs, cook, wash their hands and take out their compost.
Annika, our pioneering predecesor in the children’s food drop, is a vivacious and child-like graduate of the Yearlong Program who has seemingly endless energy to play Pied Piper with the boys to accomplish all their tasks of daily living.
I do not. It’s exhausting, something like herding reluctant statues.
I drop the issue of the nutshells and go back to chewing my squash. I watch Zander’s mat of sunlight hair dangle over the pot as he concentrates on cutting bearfat with what I don’t doubt is a profoundly dull knife.
Finished munching my squash, I eye the chipmunk making furtive forays around the edges of the children’s hearth, and stash the rest of the cooked squash in a pot. Looking around the squalor of withered boughs littered with eggshells and squash seeds, I can’t find the lid– until I realize it’s exactly where we left it, full of nutshells.
“Gio, I need that lid to cover the squash, so I really need you to put your nutshells away.”
Glancing up, Gio stands wordlessly, wipes bear grease off his little hands, and goes to pour his nutshells in the bin.
Watching him, there are no thoughts in my head. Then my eyes narrow faintly. Something is fighting to click into place in my brain, as if I am just on the cusp of understanding.
“Miigwetch,” I tell him, puzzled, not at him, but at the jigsaw puzzle within myself. “That was really helpful.”
“Do you know where the boys are?” I ask Dakota, realizing how quiet camp is.
Rocking back on her bare heels at the intersection of the trail with the log bridge to the drinking spot, her closed face and the slight shake of her head suggest to me harried exasperation.
“I believe Zander and Ishi are across the lake picking berries,” she tells me in her precise diction, hands on hips over baggy pants, “and Jason might be with them.”
I understand her resignation. Berries are one of the few areas where the children have any self-motivation whatsoever. That and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Thing is, if we don’t get firewood, we’re not going to have much to eat.
The gears in the creative chaos fermenting in my mind fracture and shift, reforming a new picture.
“This may work out perfectly,” I inform the world in general.
Dakota cracks a smile, the light back in her hazel eyes.
“What’re you up to?” she asks me, eyebrows quirked quizzically.
“I’m going with the childen’s flow,” I call over my shoulder, already hurrying through the fragrant zhingob corridor toward the canoe canal.
Paddling furiously across the sunlit lake, I start tying the pieces of my idea together, entirely unsure if it’s going to work, and insecure in the face of seven- to eleven-year-old rejection. What if they just think I’m stupid? The boys responded well once before to this tactic when I took them on a camoflaged stealth strike to the armored vessel of the visiting dignitaries (picking up moccasins from the car at the trailhead), and I don’t know if I can score two for two.
I head first for the berry hill directly across the lake from the canoe canal, and as I approach the shore I hear Ishi and Jason’s voices carried across the water a little to the south.
“Guys! Thank Paladine I found you!” I call, hurrying to the tiny landing where they’ve stashed their canoe. “I bring new intelligence!”
“What?” Zander yells back, all three faces appearing at the shore.
“What you haf to tell us?” Jason calls.
“Wait! Our voices may carry over the water. There might be spies.”
“What is it?” Jason insists blankly. I swear, they have no appreciation for suspense.
“I’ll tell you when I’m on shore. We don’t want to be overheard.”
“What is it?” he asks again, same tone, same inflection, same blank face.
“Jason!” I huff as my canoe bumps the shore and I hurriedly climb out. “I told you, there might be spies.”
Bemused, they follow me inland over a thick carpet of umber pine needles. As we sit down in a clear patch amid a tangle of tipups I tell them, “Comrades. Two ravens came to me and told me of a mighty battle between the god of the North Wind–” I glance at the direction the tipups are laying. “–actually, looks like it was the god of the South Wind, and the dryad soldiers of the dragon god of light, Paladine. There are dozens of the slain, and among the bodies of the fallen there are spoils to be had.”
All three children stare at me dumbly.
“Treasure,” I emphasize.
“What means dryad?” Jason interjects, studying me intently from beneath his tangled bangs.
“Tree people,” I tell him. “And look! You’re already here!” I throw out my arms to encompass the tangle of tipups. A more perfect location I couldn’t have imagined. “Did the ravens already tell you?” I ask incredulously.
“Noooo…” says Zander, dirt-smudged face mystified.
“Then how did you know?”
I can see Ishi’s literal mind is already at work decoding my story, the same way he did with the stealth strike scenario.
“Sooo…” His down-turned chocolate eyes regard me seriously. “The fallen trees are the dead dryads.”
“Here lie many of the slain,” I agree solemnly, squashing any frustration that his unraveling might kill the opportunity for Zander and Jason.
“And the treasure is… firewood?”
“The bodies of these dryads are imbued with the power of the god Paladine, who is the god of light and warmth. Right?” I glance at Zander for confirmation.
“He’s the dragon god of light,” he recites from his mental encyclopedia of home-brewed D&D.
“Exactly. So we may take back his treasure and release its magic in our hearth.”
“… Fire?” Ishi guesses.
“If we want to eat this sun,” I agree.
Then, to my surprise, “Okay.” They pad over and start snapping off branches.
“This is almost like real life!” Ishi says, half puzzled, half cheerful. I suppress a smile.
“Nooo it’s not!” Zander rebuts, probably just because his brother said it. “I’m gathering these twi-igs!” he giggles, taunting me in his constant quest to follow the letter and not the spirit.
“If you only gather twigs I’m going to serve you two twigs worth of squash,” I threaten, and he giggles again, scraping his mat of sunlight hair out of his dirty face.
Abruptly, Jason hauls a dead pine sapling upright.
“Look! De tree mans are coming back alife!”
Handing Jason a stick Zander squeals, “And this is his sword!” as I exclaim, “A survivor!”
Jason, now a ravening, PTSD-stricken dryad, rumbles threateningly at us, towering high above.
“Faithful servant of Paladine, fear not!” I drop to my knees in front of the sapling, my hands raised in supplication. “We are friends, come to help!” And rob your dead… “I am a healer!” Wilderness EMT surely counts. “Allow me to tend your grave wounds.”
The dryad wavers, torn between smashing us in a beserker frenzy and accepting a little TLC. Jason pokes his lips out, considering, then the dryad slowly sinks to the needle-carpeted forest floor. I lay my hands on the sapling.
“Brave servant, by the power of the dragon god, be healed!” An aside to the boys: “There’s a ring of light expanding from my hands.”
Jason hoists the sapling upright again, rumbling again.
“Please!” I entreat. “We have come for the gifts of your people. Who are the most powerful of your warriors that we might gather from them?” Jason considers again, then the dryad points with its sword at two tipups.
“We thank you!”
“Okay, de tree mans again dead,” Jason announces and drops the sapling.
“Did you make up that story?” Ishi asks me as we scale a mother tipup and I start passing him branches. His round face is full of his unique innocence, framed by his Beatles bob and bangs.
“The ravens told me,” I tell him, watching him process that illusory line between fiction and reality. Jason, to my complete surprise, is even breaking up firewood, and he and Zander start to bicker about who’s going to carry it to the canoe.
“I liked it,” Ishi says after a long silence.
“Would you like to hear more stories like that?”
“Okay. Let’s go cook lunch.”