By Monique Gagnon German
By the time she’s 10, Cami knows the main trails in and out of Grampy’s woods pretty well, even though they span more than a hundred acres. The main trail sits after a stretch of tall grasses like an open mouth between stands of firs and pines that seem to be leaning towards each other at their peaks. The trailhead is two acres from the back porch and one acre from Grammy’s vegetable garden and rows of corn. The first steps upon it always feels ten degrees cooler than everywhere else on the property as the rocky path slopes downward under a cover of tree shade.
In the garden behind the house, Grammy plants string beans, carrots, beets, and cucumbers to be picked in June and July. She plants corn and pumpkins in neat rows in separate patches nearby to be picked in August and October. Along the edge closest to the woods, wild raspberries pop up every May and June and seasonal blueberry bushes bud every August like clockwork. The whole yard is a calendar in motion, each section coming back to life spring to summer, dropping off a new load.
Grammy always jokes, “The veggies and fruits come back every year because we beg them nicely.” She says, “Every year the crops are a little different, a little better or a little worse.”
She likes determining early what kind of year it will be judging by the strawberries that arrive first in May. If they are big, sweet and juicy, she announces the summer will be a ‘top notch buffet.’ Grampy always snorts at what she says, which she responds to by lifting her hands and flicking her fingers out towards him, silently shooing him away.
This year, Grammy says, “The strawberries were sweet but hard. Great for preserves but not so great for pies.”
In the summer when Cami visits with her brother Jake, they both learn a little by helping out; things like how to snap the ends off string beans, shell peas, shuck corn (always outside to keep flies out of the house) and how to prepare cucumbers and beets for pickling. At home in the city at the start of the summer, they don’t want to come here, or so they announce to their friends, but every year after they are dropped off by mom and dad who must work all summer, they adjust quickly to the slower speed of life out in Grammy and Grampy’s country.
As much as Cami loves helping Grammy in the kitchen with the baking and seasonal jarring, she loves the trails in the woods most of all and cherishes time exploring them. She likes to stand in the middle of the thickest sections of trees, look up and just listen to the birds calling, see the squirrels scuttling, hear the leaves shifting on gusts and breezes.
Jake likes Grampy’s guns most of all; they stand in an organized oily row in a giant rack Grampy installed in the living room near the hall closet. Grampy sometimes takes Jake out to hunt deer or pheasants in the woods. This year, Grampy hands Jake his own BB gun to “practice aiming and using a sight.” When Grampy hands it to Jake, Cami thinks Jake’s mouth will never shut,
“A Crosman Air Rifle…It has a scope! Wow, Gramps, this thing can shoot! I read about it, I really wanted this one!”
Gramps just smiles and nods, “It’s yours Jake, so you take care of it and never point it towards any people, even if it is unloaded.”
“Sure, Gramps, I won’t! Thanks so much!”
“Remember always wear bright colors out there when you’re hunting. If another hunter is
out there you don’t want to get mistaken for something with fur!” This he follows with a snort.
“I know, I know,” Jake says, impatient to take the gun out and load it up.
Jake and Cami don’t play together the way they used to now that they are getting older but every now and then they still have some fun. During one of their friendly phases, after Jake exhausts himself with solo “hunting” adventures for two weeks where he comes back empty- handed, Jake says,
“Hey Cam, I saw something creepy out in the woods yesterday. You gotta see it. Wanna
go out there later and I’ll show you?”
Cami’s not afraid of anything out there so she doesn’t hesitate,
“Sure. Let’s do it.”
“Ok, we’ll go after lunch,” Jake says, sounding glad that she said yes.
When they walk in from the back porch, Grammy is setting plates down for lunch.
“Don’t slam the screen door…” Grammy says just as it slams.
“Sorry,” Jake says with a grin, “I forgot.”
Grammy says, “Just go…”
“Wash my hands I know,” Jake says, “Jeez Gram, I’m not two!” Jake laughs but it sounds like a short bark.
Cami laughs because Jake got in trouble, then bumps him with her hip and races him down the hall to the bathroom so she could have the joy of getting there first and locking the door to keep him out.
“C’mon, Cam!” Jake huffs heavily outside the door, bitter second place holder. He pounds the door a few times, pretending he will break it down.
After lunch, Jake repays her by tripping her on her way off the porch, then bolting for the main trailhead through the cornstalks, leaving her in his dust. As he runs the rifle slung over his shoulder bounces against his back reflecting little flashes of shiny sun. He waits for her in the cool shade at the start of the trail, faking utter boredom. He leans against the tree with arms draped in the low branches as if he has turned scarecrow by waiting on her so long. When she gets there, she jabs him once in the ribs, which cracks him up and out of his slump. They head, together, further into the forest. As they tramp along in the overgrown grasses dodging thorny vines and whip-like branches for twenty minutes, they hear crickets like reverse motion sensors, loud, until their steps approach and turn them silent. Birds chirp incessantly overhead, an endless chorus sung in a slew of different languages all at once.
“Jeez is it mating season or what? I can’t even hear myself think out here,” Jake says, “Good thing we’re close… Look… right there on that rock over there.” And he points to a boulder covered in bright green moss the color of antifreeze with something that looks white on top in shards of sunlight. Little white pebbles or rocks, Cami thinks, until she gets closer.
“Eeeew,” she whispers when she sees that it is bones, “Oh my God, what is it?” “I dunno,” Jake says, “maybe it was a small dog, maybe possum?”
“But it’s all laid out so neat, so organized into same size pieces!” Cami says, “It is so weird!”
“I know,” Jake says, “That’s why I wanted you to see it.” “Who does this?” Cami asks, tilting her head sideways.
“No idea. It’s soooo creepy, right?” Jake says in a high hysterical voice as he turns and lunges to grab Cami’s shoulders and give her a dramatic shake. He laughs and says,
“Hey, wanna try my BB Gun out while we’re out here? I can load it and all you have to do is aim and shoot at stuff.”
“Um… sure, ok.” Cami says even though she isn’t that into it. She likes that they are getting along and having fun just like old times. She feels like one of the boys. They keep walking, following the bumpy trail in and out of patches of sunlight sneaking through the tree tops. Jake keeps angling his head looking up until he sees what he is looking for.
“Cam, look! There!” He points to the top of a very tall oak tree. Cami sees a blob at the top, a dark clump. “Aim for that!” Jake says and hands her the gun. She thinks it is clumps of leaves but it is hard to tell from the ground. She takes the gun, aims quickly without the scope and pulls the trigger without much thought. The gun pops loud in her ear and then she sees the clump move, skitter up higher.
“Oh my God, I hit it… It’s an animal! I thought it was leaves!”
“Holy Shit!” Jake says at the same time, “Holy shit, you actually hit it!”
Cami pushes the gun back over to Jake, forcing him to grab the sling strap.
“Wait,” Jake says, “You gotta hit it again! You hurt it, you can’t just leave it there, you
gotta put it out of its misery!”
“No way,” Cami says sitting down at his feet, “I’m not shooting it again!”
Jake aims the rifle and shoots. He hits it and it squirms again, moving in the treetop
trying to hide from whatever’s attacking it. Cami sees now,
“It’s a porcupine!” she says, “Jake, stop it, stop shooting it!”
But there’s no stopping Jake now. He continues shooting, over and over again as Cami watches in disbelief. She sees dark drops dripping from the porcupine’s face. Her stomach hurts every time the porcupine tries to move, to get away. It is trapped up there, she knows there’s no way for it to escape the barrage of BBs.
“Man this guy won’t die!” Jake says, “I’m going to have to go get more BBs if he doesn’t die soon!”
Cami hates the look on Jake’s face. He looks sweaty and happy out here as he keeps loading, aiming and shooting like he’s in a war or something. “Cut it out!” Cami says.
“You started this,” he says over his shoulder to her, “I’m just doing the right thing to finish it!”
Cami says, “I’m leaving, I can’t watch this.” But as she gets to her feet she hears twigs snapping like kindling in high flames. She looks in time to see the porcupine falling, limp body cartwheeling down, bouncing off branches before thudding somewhere in the grasses at the bottom. It looks like a wet bag of potatoes she thinks and her stomach lurches.
“C’mon, let’s go see!” Jake says as he heads towards the trunk of the tree where the porcupine fell.
“No way!” Cami says and starts trudging back alone. She feels sick and sad, then guilty and angry as she stomps her way back to Grammy and Grampy’s as if she can get ahead of her emotions with speed alone. I told him to stop, she thinks to herself over and over as she pushes back branches and steps over fallen tree trunks. I told him to stop! She tries to focus on something else, the green around her, the trail under her feet, the diamond shaped patches of white sky through the webs of leaves above, how connected they all seem. But her head hurts and her eyes sting with resentment and shame. When she crosses the trailhead and sees the familiar garden of Gram and Gramp’s yard, she sprints. She will go inside, wash up, and forget this ever happened.
“I’m back, Gram,” she says quietly as she eases the screen door shut, “I’m going to wash up.”
“Okay. Will you come help me with this dough when you are clean?” Grammy asks “My
arthritis is hurting like the dickens, I could use some of your young strength!” She begs nicely.
“Sure… okay… be back in a minute.” Cami keeps moving quickly to the bathroom where she can take a moment to pull herself back together.
Jake comes stomping in an hour later when she is in the kitchen helping Grammy pound down and knead the brown bread dough. He signals her to talk but she just shakes her head and keeps punching down the rising globe in the big yellow plastic bowl as if she hasn’t seen him at all. She remembers his face in the woods.
Grampy asks him, “How’d it go? Didja get anything out there today?” Jake looks at Cami before saying, “Yeah, Gramps, I got a porcupine.”
“Good,” Grampy says, “One less out there is a good thing… One time I got in my truck
and the brake lines were chewed through… blasted porcupines!”
Cami says, “Yah, Gramps, but this one was way out in the woods just eating leaves, he wasn’t hurting anything being way out there!”
“Maybe not this time,” Grampy said, “but that’s what those critters do.”
“Not half as bad as what humans do.” Cami says in a whisper to herself and continues kneading and sprinkling flour over the top of the sticky dough.
Cami remembers a time she and Jake played a game two years ago behind the corn, a game Jake made up where he’d ask questions while she sat facing him with her bare feet out in front. He’d whack her toes with a whittled branch every time the answer was wrong. His face had that same look she saw this afternoon. Every time she thinks of Jake now, she remembers another mean thing he’s done.
That night, at bedtime, he catches up with her in the hallway. He says,
“Jeez, Cam, I can’t believe you acting like this! Listen, I’m sorry about what happened in the woods.”
“Sometimes you’re such a jerk!” Cami says then goes into her room and shuts the door. Behind the door she starts to cry without any sound coming out, shoulders pressed against the wood as if they can keep the events of this day locked out and summon the girl she was this morning back into this room. When she climbs into bed an hour later, she is exhausted. She thinks she will fall right to sleep but ends up lying awake most of the night listening to the incessant “kree-kree-kree” of crickets in the growing darkness.
Cami spends the remaining weeks of summer close to the house, avoiding Jake. Grammy teaches her to make potato pancakes and homemade applesauce. Cami spends most of her time helping in the garden when the first stalks of corn are ready to be picked and shucked. Jake spends most of his time in the woods, sometimes hunting deer with Grampy but mostly by himself. Cami has no desire to go back out there. The closest she comes is to pick blueberries from the bushes near the start of the main trail so Grammy can show her how to make a pie with them. Sometimes when she wakes up in the morning, she is thinking about the porcupine. She sees it cartwheeling down in her memory, whacking branches with its body along the way. Even though she knows better, she wonders if maybe it wasn’t really hurt that bad, if maybe it somehow lived after all.
It isn’t until Grammy tells Cami and Jake that mom and dad will be coming to pick them up in a few days that Cami starts thinking she can’t leave this way. She thinks she has to go back out on the trail, retrace her steps in order to start to get over it. She does not tell Jake. She doesn’t want him coming along. She decides to head out on her own in the morning before he wakes up. He’s been cutting her a wide berth anyway, she’s pretty sure he won’t even notice.
She heads out the back door at 9 o’clock and makes her way to the back acre. The sun is already warm on her back when she reaches the trailhead. The pines that mark the entrance seem to be breathing in and out when the air stirs them, ruffling their branches. She steps carefully over the high grass and watches her footing on the rocky trail as she moves further into the woods. She thinks about all the times she has come here and walked down this path. How private this place feels. She swats a small cluster of gnats in front of her face and notices there are more tangled overgrown bushes crossing the trail than the last time. When she gets to the strange bone rock monument, she almost walks right by it without recognizing it. The bones, overrun with moss, no longer gleam white, they look like fuzzy green warts on a green bearded chin. Just two weeks’ time has changed them, masked them almost entirely. She keeps walking to find the spot where she and Jake stopped before. The spot of the shooting.
When she gets close, she smells something sickly sweet and rotten. Then she sees it, another rock display. The decomposing porcupine has been laid atop a large mossy boulder. The only part that suggests porcupine are the quills; they stand like straws bent in a strong blast of wind. The rest of the porcupine looks shriveled and eaten away. Jake must have put it here like this, she thinks. She stares at it for a while, disgusted but wondering. The woods are quiet around her except for the occasional knock of acorns falling. She whispers, “Sorry,” before tramping back to the trail and Grammy and Grampy’s house. She isn’t sure if she’s talking to the porcupine or herself.
On her way out, she sees a flash of neon orange in her peripheral vision and turns quick
to see a hunter off in the distance. He looks very far away. She hopes she is out of his range then picks up her pace to make the clearing. She imagines what it would feel like to get shot like that porcupine. She wonders if she deserves it but breaks into a run out of sheer instinct anyway.
At the house, Jake is waiting for her when she returns. He is perched on the back porch shelling peas into a large silver colander, probably at Grammy’s insistence.
“So you went back, didn’t you?” Jake said.
“Yeah. And I saw what you did.” Cami answered.
“Hey, that guy deserved a decent grave after what you did to him.” Jake laughed mocking her again. “I can’t believe what a wuss you are being about this, I said I was sorry.”
“I know you did,” Cami said, “I just didn’t know I’d feel like this. We killed it… even if it’s just a porcupine… Now those woods will always be the place that happened… there’s no undo for it… I don’t think I ever want to come back here again.”
“You’ll get over it,” Jake said, “We all get over it eventually. People kill animals all the time to eat, you know.”
“But we didn’t kill it to eat, Jake, we just killed it for nothing.” Cami says then crosses the porch to go inside the house away from him.
The next days are a swirl of activity, first getting ready for mom and dad to come pick them up and then getting packed up and on the road back home. Cami can’t wait to get back to normal, to get home and call her friends and see what they’ve been up to all summer without her. Saying goodbye to Grammy and Grampy is always the same slow motion walk to the car followed by a series of hugs and kisses. Grammy always says the same thing, “Come back soon, love!” while Grampy always coughs uncomfortably and shifts back and forth on his feet. His hugs are giant and vicelike, squeezing the wind out of both kids. Cami is glad to pull away from their little house to head back to the city.
In the car Mom and Dad go on and on about how much they have missed Jake and Cami, how the house is too quiet without them and how much they have grown. They ask what they liked best about this visit. Jake jumps in right away, talking about the BB gun and how much fun he had hunting in the woods. He shoots a mocking look at Cami when he’s blathering on. He says he can’t wait to go back next summer because Grampy promised to let him graduate to a real gun, a hunting rifle.
Cami says nothing as Jake fills the car up with his excitement. She thinks, “No way I’m going back next year.” She sets her eyes out the window, watching trees and farms blur by. The tall grasses on the side of the road in some spots are so overgrown they hide the ditch that runs along parallel. They pass the graveyard, all those slabs of white jutting into the ground. She thinks of the bone monuments in Grampy’s woods, disappearing quickly under moss. Then suddenly she thinks about Grammy, how she ‘begs nicely’ for so little each year, a few vegetables and fruits, a few visits from her kids and grandkids. She watches the houses continue to whisk by her window, gray, brown, yellow, white, closer and closer together as they get farther away from Grammy and Grampy’s house. She feels different now than before, like one of Grammy’s strawberries that grew in hard. She also knows she will go back again next year, to see Grammy, Grampy, their woods, their house, and Jake will go too, like it and not.
About the Author:
Monique Gagnon German is a graduate of Northeastern University and Northern Arizona University. Her poems have appeared in over 25 journals/anthologies including: Rosebud, California Quarterly, Tampa Review, Off the Coast, and, The Wayfarer. She currently volunteers in elementary school classes, fostering a love of reading and writing whenever she can. Her first short story, “The Gambit Game,” appeared in the Winter, 2017 issue of The MacGuffin. “The Comebacks,” is her second short story to be published.