The summer that Violet was fourteen, she and her family camped out at Blackbirch River several times that year, starting as early as spring break, when a dusting of snow had greeted the family in the morning, and the family had huddled by the fireplace drinking hot cocoa. By now, only Jill and Violet were still at home. Dennis and Greta were spending their summers working to pay college loans, and the family had traded the huge, musty old army tent for a brightly-colored vestibule tent that doubled as a screen house. Violet and Jen liked to sleep in the screen section, where they could see the stars and the fireflies winking, and laugh at the mosquitoes that clustered whining on the screening.
Violet and Jill spent the day checking all their usual special places in the woods. Drawn by danger, they skirted the massive beech that hosted a poison ivy vine, the furred roots embracing the tree and branching out in glistening, wicked leaves that shone red at the tips. They crawled on all fours through the green tunnels between sword ferns, because they had done so as small girls. They found the dead tree with a great, grinning face carved into it. Farther up the creek a driftwood stump had been fashioned into a figurehead, a robed female watching over the water. The face was cracked and almost
unrecognizable, but the form was graceful, one slender hand lifted to the chest. Once, when they were small, Jill had found a bird carved from pine wood, and Dennis a deer. There were no new finds today, however, and on their way back to the campsite the girls picked up sticks for the fire they would have that night.
After hours of swimming and exploring, the hypnotic flames of the fire quickly lulled the tired sisters to sleep, stomachs full with chicken kebabs and marshmallows toasted over the flames. They practically sleepwalked to the tent and fell into their sleeping bags.
Violet rolled over in the night at some point and through the mosquito netting, she could see that there was someone outside the tent. She squinted to see if it was her Dad, but the figure was lankier, the hair longer. She sat up, feeling strangely, beginning to be alarmed, when the person outside called softly—
“Violet? It’s Willis.”
Violet smiled in the dark, surprised that again, she had not recognized her friend. “Hold on,” she whispered. She unzipped the screen netting and stepped out into the night, stepping into her flip-flops on the way out. She took his hand as they walked quietly away from the campsite.
They walked in the woods for hours, to the end of the pine forest at one end, where it opened to backyards of the houses that bordered East Wentham, and the other direction, to where the old sugarbush opened to cornfields, Christ the King Church visible on a rise surrounded by manicured lawn. Willis showed her how to strip the outer bark of the black birch and taste the spicy inner bark, which sweetened the breath and tasted somewhere between root beer and sassafrass.
She told him about her friends at school, and silly stories about her teachers, and her youth group, how cool the last youth pastor had been and how the new guy was really trying but the rapport wasn’t there yet, and how her Mom had gone back to nursing to help with college for all the kids, and how her new bicycle had been stolen that spring when she was at the park playing softball with her friends, and a million other things about her life. Violet was not normally so talkative, but Willis was always attentive and hungry for stories of life outside the woods, with family and friends.
She had long accepted Willis’s reluctance to talk about his own family. Those memories were old; the remembered were long gone. Their mossy headstones leaned in the old cemetery on the farm in East Wentham. His brother’s descendants were dwelling in the farmhouse on the hill. They had expanded and mechanized everything on the farm during the nineteen-sixties, after the Rural Electrification Project had come to East Wentham. All the woodlot and sugarbush had been cut down to make room for more pasture and the huge, Quonset-roofed milking parlor. The house where Willis had been born sat in a sea of timothy grass and tarmac, and he had not been near it in decades. It wasn’t even the main dwelling anymore—a modern house had been built farther back from the road, and the old, original house was rented to hired hands. Willis’s stories, when he told them, had to do with encounters with bears and owls, with shooting stars and with moon dogs, with people observed and overheard from afar.
Finally they wound up within sight of the campsite again, where they paused. “I better go to bed, Willis,” Violet yawned. Unaccountably, she burst into tears. “I’ll go to bed and wake up in the morning and not remember anything we said or did or saw, and I don’t want to forget you again—what if we move away and never come back here? And I won’t even know I forgot you, and you’ll be walking around here looking, and trapped in the ground as soon as the sun comes up—”
Willis’s arm went around her shoulder, pulling her against his chest. She felt the lamb’s wool of his waistcoat, the polished antler buttons bumpy against her cheek. The surprise of it, and the unexpected pleasure of being close to him, subdued her crying. His calloused, woodworker’s hands stroked her hair, his chin laid over her head, shushing softly.
She was soon sniffling and dropped her arms from his waist to rub her face. Before he let her go, he tilted her face up to his. “How old are you now, Violet?”
“Fourteen,” she said, a little defensively.
Willis smiled as if to himself, his hand still on her cheek, his thumb tracing her still-damp cheekbone. Then he pressed his lips to her forehead and let her go.
“Violet, I’ll be here when you come back. And I have faith that you’ll come back to me. So don’t worry. Go on back in the tent. It’s nearly dawn. I’ll wait while you fall asleep.”
“Okay, Will. Bye for now.” She went to the tent and unzipped the screen flap. Before climbing inside, she turned back to him and waved. She mouthed “good-bye” again. Inside, she lay softly next to her sister. In the corner of the tent was her journal. In the dark she unclipped the pen from the spiral binding, and while Willis hummed almost inaudibly, she wrote in the dark.
Remember Willis. I can’t forget him!!!!! He needs me, he has no one else. And besides that I really love him!!!!
She closed the journal and snuggled down in the sleeping bag. She thought vaguely that she should try to stay awake until dawn. Maybe she wouldn’t forget… but she was so sleepy. She listened to him singing softly the song he always sang. If I stay awake… it can’t be much longer until the dawn…
She couldn’t see that she had written her note over a page that was already filled with writing, and was unreadable.
The next day brought heavy rain, running down the windows of the car as the Aubrey family drove home. Violet watched the trees go by in a yellow green blur.
Something had happened in the night. What was it? Her heart remembered, but her mind refused to come up with anything. No images, no words. Only feelings. No, more than just emotion: a knowledge that was beyond words. The knowledge was forgotten, but the aching sense of ‘beyond’ remained.
There was a shape in the night, bathed in moonlight which limned only darkness. For the shadow in her heart, there was no name. She desperately wished there was a name.