Campground Botany for Beginners
Red Bridge Camp wasn’t the real name of the hole-in-the-wall hole-in-the-woods summer camp tucked away amongst the pine boroughs of upstate New York like someone had hidden it there and forgotten to return, but it may as well have been. The moniker had been coined less in fondness and more so as a string of choice words, a waggling middle finger from a group of elevens who hadn’t quite known how to flip one another the bird with the gusto it warranted. But Red Bridge they’d called it because no matter the warnings and protests of the counselors—some of whom, behind closed cabin doors, snickered at the name—Red Bridge was a whole lot catchier than Belvoir Glen Historical: Summer Camp for Troubled Boys.
It was some four hundred cool miles from home, though once the bus from Malone passed from asphalt to gravel, mileage didn’t count so much as the seconds, to minutes, to hours Archer “Gravedigger” Gravits spent with the backs of his thighs plastered with sweat to the teal vinyl seats. If Gravedigger had had it his way, he’d have flown up to Syracuse on one of those nice airliners. Three rows of seats across, room to stretch his legs out long, somewhere between debonair and obnoxious. The snack cart would roll by, peddled by a cute blonde in a flight attendant’s cap, and for a fleeting fifteen seconds, he’d be her entire world.
Can I getcha anything, sweetheart?
Oh, yeah, he’d say. One of everything. Everything, one of everything…
“Unlock and unload, shithead.” Jasper Warden’s elbow plummeted down and onto Gravedigger’s head from his seat a row back, a malevolent welcome home for the summer. “Bridgeward ho!”
“Eat shit,” Gravedigger muttered, awake enough.
Rubbing at his temple with one hand and shielding his eyes with the flat of the other at his brow, he leaned toward the window. The metallic frame chirped and rattled as the bus ground up the dirt path that never seemed quite as familiar as it should’ve, rocking over the uneven earth. Beyond the cloudy pane, the forest blinked back at him in a striking spectrum of greens, so richly hued that their darkness seemed to radiate into the sky. It was pine, pine for miles: a veil of fog shrouded the distant treetops, blankly watchful, concealing the vastness of the forest in its true stature. Earth and its oceans, Gravedigger thought. All sorts. He nodded to himself, a mature and vague knowledge passing between his ears—the forest was a hybrid signal, both shelter and warning. He had entered a court of royalty. And like each of her passing subjects, Mother Nature had demanded he bow. Unconsciously, he inclined his chin.
Jasper’s voice jolted him from thought. “Think we’ll pull it off?”
“With you along?” Gravedigger turned from the window and grinned wide. “No shot.”
Jasper knocked his wound fist twice against the top of Gravedigger’s head and fell back into his seat, disappearing from view. The bus heaved a great mechanical sigh and groaned to a stop. On his right: a run-down cabin with yellowing windows and a worn American flag limping lamely from the porch awning. Behind it, two parallel rows of like-dressed cabins, slightly smaller. As Gravedigger dug his backpack from beneath the seat, he said a silent prayer to whatever termite gods there were. Make haste, eat up, amen.
He peeled his thighs from the vinyl seat and stuffed himself gracelessly into the aisle in front of Jasper, who’d clogged the narrow stream of campers just long enough for Gravedigger to join the line. He towered a good five inches above most of the other boys, wiry legs patterned in purpling patchwork. A hell of a time, his mother had squawked on their way to the bus depot, for a growth spurt. As if it were his fault. As if he’d planned to wear high water shorts for the summer. The termites could have her, too. Do some work on the stick up her ass.
As he stepped from the bus onto the mulchy, packed-dirt earth, he looped his thumbs through the straps of his backpack and turned his eyes skyward. The leafy canopy overhead tattooed the camp in kaleidoscopic shadows, shifting as the quilted cloud layer moved. It was overcast, a mosaic of grays and blacks shifting with the summer wind like something hulking, something hungry. He turned the flat of his palm upward. No rain. No luck.
Jasper was beside him then, following his gaze. “Lookin’ for something?”
“Rain might be better,” Gravedigger said. “Don’t you think?”
“Dunno.” Jasper shrugged and hiked the strap of his duffel bag up his shoulder. After a beat, his brow furrowed, and his lips moved soundlessly. “Guess so.”
As a flood of blue-shirted counselors barked instructions from the porch of the large cabin, the campers from the bus began to split off like veins. Sixes to cabin one. Elevens to cabin four. Fourteens to cabin six. Neither Gravedigger nor Jasper needed to be told, and the cawing of the counselors had already turned static between their ears. They walked side by side quietly, submerged in trains of thought that, had they opened their mouths, might’ve collided. There was a sort of mutual burden there, between their shoulder blades—Gravedigger’s narrow, cutting sharp lines against his shirt, Jasper’s only mounds against his stocky frame. Gravedigger stopped short at the last cabin on the left. Jasper, entranced in thought, walked straight into his side. Neither boy acknowledged it. Instead, they stared in tandem at cabin six with the same pensive, half-afraid faces they’d watched last year’s fourteens don the summer before.
“Sixer, here we go,” Gravedigger muttered.
Jasper, chewing his lip: “Wonder what we’ll get.”
“It’s better not to care.”
“I know so,” Gravedigger said. He flashed the shorter boy a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, glacial blue, boring through Jasper’s head like a pair of lighthouse beams. Jasper was at once reminded of a word he’d heard defined on the discovery channel: aposematism. The brighter the color, the more potent the venom. They walked together into cabin six.
When the rain did come, it came in sheets. Filtered by the canopy, fattened droplets drummed against the roof of cabin six like impatient fingers. Gravedigger trained his gaze to the ceiling without really seeing the ceiling at all. A fine place to set his eyes while his mind spun thread. It was a series of vaulted beams, cobwebby and carved through with the initials and markers of fourteens past. In bold, block letter handwriting: RUN RED. RUN RED. Lying on his back with his hands folded to his chest, he felt a bit like one of the medieval suits of armor on display at the Folkson’s History museum downtown back home. Back when his father had been able, they’d walked amongst the marble exhibit pillars as if they’d owned the place. Now Gravedigger felt as much a fixture of the cabin as the knight must’ve to the exhibit: all he wanted was a sword.
The others were there, too. Jasper, hanging upside down off the side of his bed, bare feet knocking against the cabin wall. Gershom Flaskly, eyes closed, conducting an invisible symphony with his index finger. Ray Chester, carving a new set of letters into the headboard of his bed with the handling end of a rusting metal spoon. The four of them were the repeat offenders, the most troubling of the troubled, the knights of the round table. Gersh and Ray were a sort of duo the same way he and Jasper were—unlikely, by necessity. Most circumstantial alliances were a matter of balloon and pinprick. No relationships forged at Red Bridge were made to last; their staying pattern was less sentiment than survival tactic. Four was a good number, though. Nothing to turn your nose up at.
The legend had been crudely developed to the tune of a nursery rhyme, though no Red Bridge camper would’ve been accused of artistry:
It’s raining; it’s pouring
The boys went exploring
They all saw red; they crossed instead
And never returned in the morning.
The last group of fourteens who’d tried the Red Bridge run had only had three boys. Half of the original group that’d done it, and they’d only made it half as far. Figured. Each year there were fewer fourteens. Fewer parents willing to ship their sons off under the guise of wilderness therapy mechanics. A successful Red Bridge run hadn’t been completed since Gravedigger was a six. He hadn’t understood what it’d meant then, beyond getting out. Maybe he’d been better off that way. It was one thing to know the stories, to feel worthy, to sit pretty in the loop. It was another to have it be your turn. Fear crept up on quiet feet and wrote you off before you had the chance to come to your own defense. Gravedigger found, with shallow-breathed horror, that he’d been tapping out the rhyme’s rhythm against his thigh with a wound fist. He sat bolt upright at the sound of knuckles on the cabin door.
A voice floated past cabin six and back up the line: “Last call for dinner!”
Gravedigger sat back on his elbows and watched the remaining fourteens drain out of the cabin, door creaking on its hinges. When they were gone he stood up on the mattress, his height a measure of authority. Gersh, Ray, and Jasper sat at rapt attention. For a moment he felt almost sick with the rush. Heady with power. And afraid to wait a second longer.
“There’s our window. Get your stuff,” Gravedigger said. “Lanterns, matches, boots. and shit for the rain. We’re going now.”
The summer past, Gravedigger had found himself sheltered beneath the unlikely wing of then-fourteen, then-poster child for the Red Bridge run. David Delphi was a legend of sorts at Red Bridge—he’d been involved in the run in some way or another since he himself was a six. The rumors were widespread and hotly debated—though the heat was a matter of ebb and flow, as any controversy was wont to be. Some accounts read as if David had been a part of that first group, traveling on the shoulders of some soft-hearted fourteen who’d refused to leave him behind. Others claimed that David had been a victim of the Red Bridge run, that he’d gone in one boy and come out another, refusing to speak about the space between. The rumors grew heavier still: David, perhaps, had created the Red Bridge run. Still, Gravedigger found none so compelling as the thought that he’d simply stumbled into hope and fallen in too deep to escape. One truth rang universal: David had been the only Red Bridge run success to return since the original group.
Jasper, from Gravedigger’s back: “We there yet?”
Gravedigger turned. “What do you think?”
Jasper laughed. The sound was hot with adrenaline. Gravedigger’s tongue had turned paperweight between his teeth, his throat stuffed with cotton. He tugged at his collar, rainwater shooting down his neck in eager rivulets. They’d been trudging for twenty minutes and change toward the northern outskirts of the campground, galoshes squelching steadily through the undergrowth. Gersh and Ray may as well have been walking on top of one another, huddled together, trailing behind. Gravedigger had expected it. He’d been surprised they’d agreed to come along at all.
Every so often they’d pass a tree with a letter carved into its bark, the incisions stricken through over and over again, digging the marrow from the bone. It was just as David had told him it’d be. Gravedigger’s mind, so often a whirlpool of flurried emotions, passing thoughts, memories, had gone still. By the time they reached the bridge—the warbling babble of the brook beneath heralding their arrival—Gravedigger’s bout of tunnel vision had become intoxicating. He felt as if he were a phantom, retracing the steps of his former self, David’s guiding figure just out of reach. Too far gone to give in.
(The boys went exploring)
At Gravedigger’s command, Gersh and Ray dug their lanterns from the packs. Ray had one of the nice ones, the LED collapsibles that’d throw light for hours if you’d let them. Every year his parents bought him a new lantern, Ray had told them one summer, like some kind of battery-powered olive branch. They’d all laughed at that, then.
Now the air between the four boys was solemn. Humidity and apprehension hung thick about their heads. Gersh and Ray held their lanterns like altar boys. Jasper’s chest rose and fell in rapid metronome. Gravedigger grinned madly.
“What if they taste bad?” Jasper asked.
“That doesn’t matter,” Gravedigger said. “You won’t really taste them, anyway.”
At the mouth of the bridge grew a spiny bush. It stood in lonesome on the brook’s bank, growing crooked and gnarled, the only flora that dared thrive within a ten-yard radius of mankind’s touch. Amongst its olive-colored leaves hung red berry bushels. With a sort of reverence only teenage boys and lunatics had the capacity for, Gravedigger reached forward and clipped a bushel from amongst the leaves. A thorn pierced his palm, somewhere between the line meant to dictate life and the line meant to dictate love.
He distributed the bushel across their outstretched palms and picked a helping of his own. One by one they clambered onto the bridge, planks beneath their feet not red but brown, worn and creaking under their weight. In a crescent, they stood together, at the chasm between hope and desperation. Gravedigger rolled one of the berries between his thumb and forefinger and toasted to the air as if it were a wine glass.
“Run Red,” he said.
The boys followed suit. “Run Red.”
(They all saw red)
Each boy swallowed three berries from the bushel, ground their red bodies to bitter pulp between their molars, felt the venom swirl atop their tongues. Gravedigger watched the realization flash across their faces, wondered how his own might look, wondered if he’d ever look at them again, wondered if he’d made a mistake, wondered if he’d return. Most of all, he wondered if David had been honest: would the berries really free these troubled boys from themselves? Open their brains and do the tinkering? And in the hours that felt more like the telescope of fifteen seconds, his mind erupted.
(They crossed instead)
Gravedigger’s nose felt raw.
He was in space. There wasn’t much oxygen there, but everything shone as brightly as his eyes. He had grown up believing that one day he’d fly to space. Not on one of those Syracuse airliners, three rows of seats across. Plenty of room to stretch his legs, somewhere between debonair and obnoxious. No, he believed that he’d fly on something bigger. Bolder. Never had he guessed that the day would come so soon. His body was weightless among the stars, and he wondered, briefly, if he felt the way gods did.
His nose was running.
Space was imposing, in its comfort. Nothing could touch him in space. Not the Medieval knights at Folkson’s History Museum downtown back home—his father had always been the sword, Archer the shield. Not the crowing, piercing voice of his mother—as if it were his fault he’d grown, as if it were his fault he’d wear highwater shorts that summer, as if all of their trouble was his fault, all of his trouble his own. As if. The stars were receding, pinpricks fading to dust, their colors lingering in oddly shaped masses. He wanted to hold them, to run them between his fingers, to swim through their light the way saints swam in their sins. To break from the life that’d brought him there.
(And never returned in the morning)
He woke alone, on the opposite bank of the brook.
And the only brightly colored hue Gravedigger found was red, pouring from his nose.
Juliana G Riedman is a senior at Binghamton University in Vestal, New York; she is pursuing a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in Ellipsis and Free Press. She will be continuing her academic studies in pursuit of her Master of Arts this autumn at Binghamton University.