The packing list said sunscreen, sleeping bag, trail mix. I would tame the wild woods with flashlight and wool socks. But the word swimming suit choked my mind with unknown waters.
I’d been living with Grandma since fall, and nobody seemed to know how long it would last. We didn’t discuss Mother’s illness, only that she was “sick,” and “in the hospital.” But it was the most frightening hospital I’d ever seen, where a teenage girl with a crewcut sat hollow-eyed in a TV room, and an old lady shuffled back and forth holding a doll, and a bearded man with a greasy T-shirt talked to a plant.
Not to mention Mother, dressed in a bathrobe, moving slow as if she were drowning. Speaking in a flat, faraway voice, with eyes that looked in your direction but didn’t see. There was a breadcrumb in the corner of her lips.
Now it was summer. No talk about fall, past or future. “You’re going to camp,” said Grandma. The only words I had were mysterious, in Helvetica typeface, next to tidy checkboxes.
Pillow, I read. Out loud I said, “Camera.”
“You can borrow my Instamatic,” said Grandma. She frowned and tapped a pen against her lips.
I looked at that one word again. It reminded me that I could not swim. It told me I might drown.
“It’s only for a month,” Grandma added. “A whole month! You’ll have So. Much. Fun.”
The last word on the list was stationery. Grandma wrote letters every week on her Smith-Corona typewriter. Letters were what you did when you couldn’t do anything else. When home couldn’t hold the right people, at the right time.
I stood in the parking lot, sun gleaming off the gravel. Grandma gave me a peck on the cheek and handed me a package just as I was about to board the bus. It was a see-through box tied with blue ribbon: stationery topped with bluebirds. Their beaks smiled grandly.
Two hours later, the Hidden Valley Camp bus turned out into wide, green fields bordered by forest.
Two days later, I knew the names of everyone in my tent, and what they got in the mail. Stacy got a care package of chocolate chip cookies. Jenny got a troll doll. Terri got a very small pillow with white daisies. I got a letter from Mother.
The return address was Western State Psychiatric Hospital. On the stamped letterhead, Mother’s penciled handwriting sagged like a sprung spiderweb. She wrote, I forget if it’s two or three sentences to a paragraph.
When I was five, I used to lean against the window and cry whenever Mother left. Now I crumpled her letter in my hands.
“Canoe time,” Counselor said, some days after. Stacy and Jenny cheered. Terri said, “All riiight!” I shivered at the water’s edge.
I don’t know how I made it into the boat, fat in my orange life jacket. Then I dipped my oar in the blue-green lake of shadows and it was easy. Like sticking fingers into frosting and pulling away a smooth, silky hunk. It was like mirror writing, the way you paddled opposite how you wanted to move.
After, I sat on the dock with my tentmates, dabbling toes in the ripples. The warm wood scratched my thighs.
“I saw ‘The Omen’ before camp,” said Stacy. “It’s rated ‘R’ but my Dad takes me to any movie I want. It scared the hell out of me.”
“Yeah?” said Jenny.
“In ‘The Omen,’ there’s this kid, Damien. His parents don’t know where he comes from. He’s a child of Satan.”
And with three words, the terror was back. Child of Satan told me everything I needed to know. The water wouldn’t kill me. Neither would it kill me to have a mother in the mental hospital. But this was the ultimate terror, and the reason I felt different from the other kids: I was a child of Satan.
The truth of it was a shadow, thick and empty, filling my stomach. I fed on it at night in my sleeping bag, the trees whispering about the canvas tent walls. It exhausted me at craft time. Child of Satan. It yanked me from the inside and outside, stretching me until I was thin and see-through like the taffy we pulled at Group Activity.
Three weeks, those words threaded through my mind.
Then, one day in the woods, I forgot to think them.
Our hike leader led us high along the forest trail. At last she said, “Okay, guys. Lean your heads back. Look up to the highest branches. Squinch your eyes. Can you see how different everything looks?”
There was a shine that wiggled in the treetops, like soap bubble liquid stretched over a plastic hoop. The light was changing, things were shimmering. Walking back to camp, I saw a trail mix of leaves and mushrooms, frosted ponds, sugar-daddy creeks. Old trees offered friendly, knobby hands. The creek was not afraid to sing.
That night, Jenny, Stacy, Terri and I held flashlights to our chins, laughing as our faces glowed molten red, changing from human to alien. I took out my packet of bluebird stationery.
I was very happy to hear from you! I’m going to tell you a little about this camp. There are many different things to do. There is Archery, Rifelery, Hikes, Riding horses, special events, sailing, canoeing, swimming, sports, overnights. Its hard to think of everything… Camp fires. Every person has to do something around the tent. One day you might be the sweeper. Another day you might be the Person that puts up the Tent flaps. Everything is fun. Hope your glad to hear from me! Love ya!!
P.S. I’m beginning to miss everyone a little.
When camp was over, Grandma met the camp bus, tapping my shoulder with her driving glove, ready to hit the road. A month later, she would put me in a foster home.
For years, Mother would save my letter, shuttling the bluebird pages from drawer to suitcase, from dresser to shoebox, in the halfway houses and care facilities where she spent her life. Home would never again mean having her with me.
I stopped crumpling Mother’s letters when they came. I answered them, putting down my thoughts — even when they were bright and flighty and fake as bluebirds that smiled. In this way, I learned to make my own magic words.