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The boy from the woods.

It was late in the afternoon, almost dusk, when the last of the campers had left. The head counselor had taken a large group to the city by train; parents had driven up to collect the others. Now the final car was just departing up the camp road, while the director stood with hand raised in a farewell gesture. His smile remained fixed for some moments after the car was out of sight. Finally he relaxed, and the smile--affable but professional--slowly faded. As he stood there motionless, his gaze became almost vacant, reflecting the blankness of the nearby pine woods, where the trees stood so still in the lengthening shadows that they seemed to have lost even the memory of motion. Within that dark wall of pine trees was a sanctuary of stillness, of mystery; for the present unfelt, unsensed by the man who confronted it.

So sunk was he in this strange lassitude that he didn't hear the approach of the camp's caretaker. "Yah, sure, it's yust going to be kind of lonesome without the kids," said the wiry old Swede, resting on his upturned wheelbarrow.

With an effort Warren Cole roused himself, trying to push up out of the depths into which he'd fallen. "That's right, Fred," he said absently. "It's always lonesome just after they leave."

"And ay want to say," rambled the good-natured Swede, "they were one nice bunch of kids, yah, sure! Yust helped me lots of ways. Ay got to know them pretty goot."

Cole felt himself give an inward start. Confined to his office in the main lodge, tied up with countless administrative details, how many boys had he really got to know? At meals he say them and sometimes at the night's activities in the main lodge, but----

"Yes," said the director mechanically, "they were nice kids."

"Oh, it was a goot season, Mr. Cole. Yah, sure, a goot season." Fred saw the need for cheering his employer.

"That's right, Fred." The tone was hollow, the words barely audible. But somewhere in the recesses of his mind Cole made an additional comment. Yes, a good season. Program clicked . . . nearly a hundred boys . . . made more profit than I've ever had from a season. . . . Suddenly he straightened up and for the first time looked directly at his caretaker.

"It was a good season, Fred." He paused. "But it's going to be my last." He spoke with determination, almost fiercely. The decision was made. But he didn't know whether he felt better for it or not. There was a moment of silence. The caretaker scratched the stubble on his jutting chin and swallowed a few times, staring at his employer.

"Aren't you feeling so goot, Mr. Cole?" asked Fred, helpless to think of anything else.

"Oh, I'm all right," said the director. He tried to recover his usual brisk manner. "We'll talk about it later, eh?"

Fred nodded. "Well, ay guess you'll be wanting supper soon," he said, too bewildered to question the matter further. "So you yust come to the kitchen when you're ready, and ay will----"

"Don't bother fixing me anything tonight, Fred. I'll get myself something a little later. You go on now and eat your own supper. I'll--I'll just wander around for a while."

He listened till the footsteps and sound of the wheelbarrow had faded up the path toward the main lodge. Stillness again. A deep, primordial stillness, yet big with life--the myriad life waiting, listening in the forest. Each motionless branch of pine and birch was held, as if in a frieze, outside time and unchanging.

Disturbed by the stillness and seeking to reassure himself, the man kicked at a stone in the driveway. He was certain he knew what he had wanted to say, but it was as if the words to shadow forth his thought were held from him by some mysterious force. He shrugged again. "Things have changed," he ended vaguely. "They've changed."

He turned to gaze at the luxurious layout of his camp. Year after year he'd added things--expensive things, things he thought his camp had to have if he were to attract the boys. In the softly luminous dusk he could still see the extensive playing fields, the rows of neat, well-constructed cabins. He gazed at the tennis and basketball courts and at the elaborate shops for crafts, photography and artwork. And for a moment he could even hear his own voice, resonant and cheerful, giving directions to counselors and campers over the new loudspeaker.

He felt a surge of pride and a lifting of his spirits; but it was only for a moment. In the end the emptiness returned. Listless and discouraged, he wandered toward the baseball field nearby, slumping down onto a bench behind the backstop. In that instant Warren Cole felt all of his 57 years. His once solid, energetic figure had become soft and slack beneath the weight of prosperous-looking flesh, and his skin was almost as pale as when the season had begun. All summer he had remained virtually a prisoner in his pine-paneled office, going over the elaborate daily schedule with the program director, discussing activities with counselors, writing letters to parents and taking care of all the seemingly endless details. He sighed and stared at the ground.

Somewhere out on the lake that lay on the other side of the rise where the main lodge stood, a loon uttered its weird cry, and the mournful sound seemed to carry Cole along with it.

How long he sat there he didn't know, but for some reason he suddenly raised his head. It was then he caught sight of something that made him jump to his feet.

"Good Lord!" he exclaimed aloud. At the very edge of the woods stood the figure of a boy. The director's first thought was that this was a camper who had been left behind. He took a step forward, staring intently. The boy remained motionless, strangely calm and thoughtful as he stared back at the director. Something about him made Cole hesitate, and for several moments the two eyed each other.

"Did that fool Robinson leave one of the campers behind?" muttered the director under his breath. Apprehensively he recalled that once before, some years ago, a camper had wandered off into the woods on the last day and had somehow been overlooked until he reappeared several hours after the group he was going home with had left. Cole didn't see how this could ever happen again, but he feared the worst. Collecting himself, he called out to the boy in a reassuring tone.

"Hey, there, come over here, won't you? Who are you?" Whether an answer came or not, Cole couldn't be certain, for a sudden gust of night wind breathed with hollow thunder through the pine boughs. Then it was still again. Cole was relieved to see the boy moving toward him at last. The figure seemed to glide across the grass with the ease and grace of an animal. Peering through the semidarkness, Cole satisfied himself that the boy wasn't wearing a camp uniform; whereupon he straightened up with a sigh of relief. In another moment the boy stood before him. He was dressed in faded brown shorts, a torn, white t-shirt and moccasins. The face and the body were darkly tanned, and the light brown hair sun bleached, almost blond in several places. Cole sat down on the bench again. He was certain he had never seen the boy, for he couldn't have forgotten those strange dark eyes that regarded him with such a disconcertingly calm and thoughtful expression.

"Hello, there, son. Do you belong to my camp?"

"No, I don't belong to your camp."

Cole was vaguely disturbed by what he thought was a note of irony in the boy's voice. But staring closely at the child, whom he judged to be about 12 or 13, the director concluded that he could find nothing impolite or mischievous in his manner.

"Come here and tell me about yourself." Cole smiled with professional affability and patted the bench. Without giving any sign that he had noticed the invitation, the boy remained standing. Shifting a little uneasily, Cole tried again. "Tell me about yourself. Where do you live and what are you doing here at this time of night? What do you want?"

A whippoorwill had begun its incantation from a thicket nearby, and the boy seemed to be listening to it rather than to the director. But when the night bird was silent the boy spoke at last.

"I would like you to take me home." He spoke softly, with a tone that was somehow as vague and unfathomable as the sound of wind in the pines.

"Why, sure, my boy!" exclaimed Cole, heartily relieved that the matter was turning out to be such a simple one. "I'll be glad to take you home. Tell me where you live and we'll be on our way."

"There," said the boy, pointing a berry-stained finger. "There--on the other side of the woods."

"Oh. Well, we'll drive around in the station wagon. How's that?"

"We can just as well walk. It's not far, and there's a path through the woods that leads almost to our cabin. I could get back in no time at all, only--only I guess I'm a little afraid now that it's getting dark. But you don't mind that, do you?"

Cole stared at the boy. Incredible as it seemed, the child's question had sounded not, he decided. Yet what was the boy up to anyway? Cole leaned forward, studying the face more closely. The luminous brown eyes only blinked at him with their inquiring, fawnlike expression. But in their depths seemed to burn two tiny hearts of flame, wild and secret as a creature of the forest. The director shifted about on the bench, uneasy and irritated because he didn't seem to have the situation under control. It was certainly more sensible that he drive the boy home in the station wagon; yet now he couldn't bring himself to insist upon it any further. Catching sight of a flashlight on the ground a few feet away that had been dropped by some camper, Cole suddenly made up his mind. It was going to be a clear, starry night, but there'd surely be no chance of wandering off the path if he had a light.

"All right, my boy, we'll walk! I think a little hike through the woods would just do me good." Realizing that his voice sounded a bit too loud and the cheerfulness too forced, he moved casually over to pick up the flashlight. It was all so sudden and so totally unexpected that he was both bewildered and irritated by the situation in which this strange child had somehow involved him.

Resting a hand on the boy's shoulder, he said, "You lead the way, son, and I'll follow."

The boy slipped from under his hand and moved off toward the woods, glancing back with a quick, playful smile. At the very edge of the woods he stopped and, when Cole approached, the boy reached out unexpectedly and took his hand. In a moment the irritation the director had felt disappeared, and in its place came a sudden, nameless affinity with this boy.

Cole never remembered having seen the path they took. But with a twinge of conscience he admitted to himself that this was not surprising. There was still just enough light so they could make their way through the thick stand of pines without too much difficulty. And the boy seemed to have eyes like a cat. Soon, however, the path narrowed and they had to walk in single file. The boy moved ahead.

"By the way," said the director, "you haven't told me your name?"

"Oh, you can call me Warren."

"Why, that's my name too."

"I know."

"But nearly everyone calls me Coley." He laughed. "You'd better call me that too. It'll be less confusing, eh?"

There was no reply, and for a few minutes they walked along in silence. Cole watched with fascination the boy's quick, lithe movements. Everything about him blended in harmony with the woods. He glided along as gracefully and easily as a fish slipping through underwater plants. Trying to imagine some of his campers in a similar situation, Cole had a vision of their comparatively clumsy, plodding efforts, and he shuddered partly with amusement, partly with real regret.

As he studied the figure ahead, a thought came to him: here was a boy who had somehow discovered the mystery of the woods, had learned to love its beauty, its holiness. It wasn't just a skill, it was a way of life--one in which he would always find strength and comfort. Cole suddenly remembered a time long ago on camping trips with his father when he, too, might have been such a boy.

And wasn't this discovery part of the ideal he had once envisioned for himself and the boys in his camp? How had he lost sight of it then? He shook his head, unable to answer as to how or why.

Suddenly he had to stop to unhook his shirt from a low-hanging pine branch. He felt awkward and out of place in his well-creased slacks and bright sport shirt. But as they continued on he became strangely pleased by this tramp through the woods. For the time being he shrugged off the questions that had suddenly risen to prick his conscience. After all, he thought, what did it matter now that he had decided to leave camping?

The night air became cool, but free from insects this late in the season. Patches of light from the newly risen moon lay on the carpet of pine neeldes, and sometimes the light was caught, glistening, in thick, silvery cobwebs that hung among the bare lower barnches.

With each step Cole felt an increasing affecting and respect for this strange child. He would like to have had such a boy of his own. Suddenly--forgetting completely his decision to give up the camp--he gave way to an impulse that delighted him.

"Hey, there, Warren. How would you like to come to my camp next summer? For the whole season. Maybe you can help with the nature work, and campcraft. But mainly you'll just be my guest. How would you like that?"

"Thank you," replied the boy without hesitating a moment, "but I don't think I'd care to come."

Cole was so astounded by this matter-of-fact refusal that he stopped in his tracks. Why, he had more applicants for his camp than he could handle--and at a good price too. And here this--this ungrateful brat wasn't even interested! "Wait a moment!" he called. "Look here, let's rest a bit." He wanted to get to the bottom of this matter. Besides, he really did need a rest, for he was puffing strenuously.

"Now," began the director after they had made themselves comfortable on a soft mound of pine needles, "tell me why you wouldn't like to come to my camp." With difficulty he tried to keep his tone friendly and reassuring.

The boy crossed his legs, shoved back a lock of hair and gazed at Cole. "What do you do at your camp?"

"Why--why, you know. We play basketball and baseball and tennis--"

"We can play those things in the city."

"Certainly you can! But"--Cole struggled to remain patient--"Well, there's swimming and boating, even water-sking--and of course the nature and campcraft activities."

The boy nodded and sifted pine needles through his fingers. "Yes, that would be fun, I guess. But--" He fell silent.

Cole decided the child was deliberately trying to irritate him. He glared--and the boy gazed back, blinking his large brown eyes with such an expression of sincerity and innocence that the director felt helpless. Forgeting how much he had been admiring the boy only a few minutes before, Cole fumed inwardly.

A problem child, he thought. Mal-adjusted. If I knew something about his background or environment I might be able to help him. The boy's not normal! Satisfied on this point, he resolved to tolerate the child's vagaries as patiently as possible.

"Now tell me, Warren, what is it you don't like about my camp? Tell me what it is and I'll see what I can do to make it right. You see, I'd really like to have you at the camp as my guest. So don't be afraid. Just tell me."

They boy gazed about him a few moments without speaking. He looked up at the pines towering above them, then lowered his glance to watch the twitching nose of a rabbit poking out from the jumper bushes nearby. Finally he spoke, quietly and simply.

"It's like this. You bring the city into the woods. You've got telephones, electric lights, hot showers, radios, jukeboxes, loudspeakers--" He paused. "The loudspeaker's the worst. It frightens the animals. You don't live in the woods. You just live in a--in a little city surrounded by woods."

There boy's voice. He spoke as always, softly, impersonally, and yet with such profound assurance that it bewildered the director. It seemed as if some older, wiser as if some older, wiser personality than the boy's spoke through his lips. Nonetheless, for a moment the director was unable to restrain himself.

"Why, that's nonsense?" he shouted. "Look, I have a nature counselor who takes the boys into the woods and teaches them the names of the trees and birds and all that sort of thing. Why, they even take a test on what they've learned at the end of the season. If they pass, they get a diploma. There, what do you think of that?"

The boy looked down at the tepee he was building out of pine needles and twigs. "Sure," he said finally, "they learn the names of all the things, but--but they don't really know the woods till they live in them, till they make the tings they learn a part of their living. They don't do that, do they?"

Cole could only stare at the boy, but now not so much in anger as amazement. The boy's words had suddenly carried him back almost 40 years to the time he had first began camping. Then they had lived in tents, slept on hemlock boughs and cooked over open fires. There had been no tennis or basketball or water-skiing; no main lodge with radios, movie projectors, Jukeboxes; no dances with girls' camps--Cole winced as he thought of the incredible change that had taken place. He wondered then at the sacrifice he had made for the sake of all the modern improvements he felt obliged to buy in order to get boys to come to the camp. But surely, he thought, there was nothing so wrong about all that.

"Look here," he began, trying to defend what only a short time ago he'd been prepared to give up, "my boys go on overnight hikkes--"

"On picnics," interrupted Warren. The director waved an angry finger in the child's face. "They go on overnight camping trips! Sometimes they stay out two or three nights. Maybe it's not what it used to be--" He dropped his accusing finger and shrugged. "Well, times have changed, that's all. I give the boys what they want, and they still get some real knowledge of the woods."

His young companion laughed. Then he cuffed the little twig-and-pine-needle tepee flat and jumped to his feet. "Follow me," he said, crooking his finger. "I want to show you something."

The camp director lifted himself wearily off the ground and followed the boy. They made their way along a small path branching off from the one they had been following, and in a minute or two came to a clearing outlined in the moonlight.

The boy stood aside and pointed. "My dad taught me about the woods'"--Cole started, remembering that he, too, might have once said those very words-- "and one thing he always told me," continued the boy, "was that you can tell if someone knows anything about the woods if he can make a camp and then go away without leaving any signs that he's been there. So look."

Cole looked, and in the moonlight he saw the debris from some overnight trip that had gone out from camp: clumsily hewn pieces of wood and shavings, a scouring pad, aluminum foil, a dirty handkerchief, some pieces of frayed rope and a few other similar items. It was like a scar defacing the beauty of the forest. The director grimaced and thrust his hands violently into his pockets.

"If I were coming back next season," he muttered, once more switching to his earlier decision, "I'd get rid of that campcraft counselor!"

"That wouldn't do much good," replied the boy softly, seeming to accept the director's sudden admission about not returning.

For a long moment the two looked at each other in silence. There seemed then to be an instant of understanding between them, as deep as the forest, as inexpressible as its wild, indomitable heart. Then Cole turned abruptly aside.

"It's about time we were getting you home, isn't it?" He was begining to have doubts that this strange child of the woods had a home. "I thought you lived only a short distance? We've come more than a mile already, and now I don't know where we are. Let's go." His tone had become querulous, and he felt suddenly angry and impatient.

As if not hearing, his young companion stooped to pick up a hawk's feather, examined it and then looked up at the camp director. "I like the woods better than a camp. I wish there weren't any camps around here at all. But it was nice of you to invite me to your camp anyway." Then he started back toward the path they had just left. "We've got just a little farther to go." Cole grunted and followed him.

By now the trees towered above them more densely. It was becoming darker, the path more overgrown and harder to follow. Cole had to use his flashlight, but the battery was weak and it offered a minimum of help. His sport shirt and slacks were torn, and there was a streak of dried blood on his cheek where a branch had caught him. He had no idea in what direction he was headed and he was becoming uneasy. The noise of his own clumsy progress through the woods sounded frighteningly loud against the silence around them. At last he could barely make out the path, and the figure ahead of him was almost invisible. He stopped, catching his breath in gasps.

"Warren!" he called. "Warren, wait up!" The boy halted and turned back. "Look here," puffed the directing? If you want my opinion, we're lost. Well?" In the dark Cole could almost feel that unfathomable gaze resting on him, could almost see flickering beneath the calmness of the eyes those tiny secret flames.

"Yes," answered the boy quite simply, "I think we're lost."

Cole took several steps forward, stopped, and stared unbelievingly at the child. It was not simply the fact that they were lost that unsettled him, but now he was certain that the boy was actually smiling! Yet he could see it was not a mocking smile, but a perfectly friendly smile as if the boy were unaware that anything was seriously wrong.

"You did this on purpose, you little devil!" shouted Cole. "You know you did! I was crazy to come with you. It was just a trick because you don't like my camp. Well, let me tell you--" He lunged toward the boy, but the lithe figure slipped easily away and disappeared among the trees. Plunging after him a few yards, Cole suddenly realized the hopelessness of giving chase. He realized at the same time that his directions were now so confused that even with a flashlight he could wander around the rest of the night before finding his way out.

"Come back here!" he called. "I won't touch you. I promise I won't. Come back!" Then he stood still, waiting anxiously for several minutes. But the boy had vanished as quietly and mysteriously as he had come.

There was not a sound in all the forest. Even the tops of the pine trees were frozen in dark silence beneath the heavens, which seemed so close that here and there a star appeard to rest on the very tips of the trees. In spite of the stillness, Cole felt all about him the breathing of the wilderness, slow, immense, powerful--pulsing like the heart of some great, sleeping animal.

At last he sat down, propping himself against a tree. Suddenly and inexplicably he no longer felt angry at the boy--only a sense of amazement, and of regret that the child was no longer with him. Now Cole wanted only to sleep, for he seemed overcome by a tremendous weariness.

Flashing his dim light about him, the director caught sight of a large hollow filled with pine needles at the foot of a great pine. He crawled over to it on his hands and knees, too tired to walk, and scooped out a little trench in the needles. He snuggled down into them, feeling the warmth they still retained from the sun. Before he could review in his mind any more of the night's events, he fell sound asleep. When he awakened, feeling cold and stiff, a few rays of early morning sunlight slanted through the trees. Cole sat up, shivering a little and rubbing his arms and legs. Several minutes passed before he could remember exactly where he was and why. Then suddenly a smile crossed his face. He wasn't quite sure why he smiled, but the smile reflected the brightness of the sun's rays that rippled along the branches, spilled onto the bushes and ferns and down onto the carpet of pine needles. Getting to his feet, Cole faced the sun and stretched. As if warmed by the inner fire of some sudden inspiration, he no longer shivered or felt the ache in his muscles.

A red squirrel ran out along a pine branch nearby, peered down and then began to chatter and squeak in unfriendly squirrel language. Cole glanced upward. "Hey, there, boy, take it easy," he laughed. "The woods are big enough for both of us!" At the sound of the voice the squirrel scampered halfway back along the branch, then stopped and turned to peer down again at Cole. Its tail, a jaunty, burnished plume, flicked a few times. Satisfied that coexistence was possible, it scolded no more and disappeared into the higher branches.

It took Cole only a minute or two to decide in which direction to walk. He knew the sun rose directly across the lake from the main lodge. So at last, after brushing the pine neeedles from his clothes, he headed east into the rising sun. Before he had taken many steps he found the path he'd walked along the night before. As something from a dream he seemed to recognize it. But when he suddenly spotted a little mound of twigs and needles in a clearing beside the path, he smiled. He wanted no part of it to be a dream.

As he walked along he was surprised by the vigor of his stride and the spring in his step. He seemed to be keenly alert to everything. If a chipmunk scurried along a fallen log, he saw it; if a partridge rustled invisibly beneath the tall maidenhair ferns or juniper bushes, he heard it. He smelled the acrid sweetness of the pines and listened to the occasional songbird still holding forth at summer's end.

He began at last to recollect the night's events: That boy, he mused. Bet he lives in that little summer cabin on the dirt road running by the other side of my property. Of course! Why didn't I think of that before? He's the boy the game warden told me about once. "Roams the woods like an animal," he said. Think he's a good friend of the boy's too. I'll just drive over to the cabin and--

"Mr. Cole! Hey! Mr. Cole!" It was Fred's voice calling from somewhere directly ahead. Cole started. The sound crashed disagreeably on his ears, like a voice shattering a pleasant dream. With an effort he reconciled himself.

"Here I am, Fred! Right ahead of you!" In a few more minutes the two met on the path. The Swede rushed up and shook the director's hand.

"Ay sure am glad to see you, Mr. Cole! Ay was yust ready to go back and call the sheriff."

"Just out for a morning walk, Fred," laughed Cole. "Should have told you, but I didn't think you'd miss me so soon." The caretaker stared bewildered at his employer's torn shirt, the rumpled pants, the hair in disarray and the generally disheveled appearance. He shook his head, wondering at this and how it fitted in with the remarkably good spirits his employer had suddenly got into.

"Yah, sure, you should let me know, Mr. Cole. Ay was getting worried when ay went to your lodge to see if you wanted breakfast."

Cole knew then the caretaker had probably found his bed unslept in, but he didn't feel like making any explanations at the moment. "Come on, Fred, let's get back. I'm hungry enough to eat a breakfast big enough for a whole cabin of Kids!"

As they moved down the path, only a short distance now from the edge of the woods, the caretaker raised a question which had undoubtedly been worrying him since last night. "Ay was yust wondering, Mr. Cole," he began hesitantly, "if you were going to give up this here camp."

"Give up the camp!" cried Cole with feigned surprise. "Give up the camp? Wherever did you get that idea?" His voice was bursting with good spirits, and he took additional delight from his caretaker's confusion.

"Yah, sure, Mr. Cole, ay thought you said last night--"

"But that was last night, Fred!" exclaimed Cole, hardly able to contain a burst of hearty laughter. "That was last night! Everything's different this morning. And things are going to be different at the camp next season too!"

The caretaker was suddenly caught up in his employer's good spirits. "Ay am goot and happy you ain't leaving, Mr. Cole. And we'll make next season a real goot one, yah, sure!"

"Yes, Fred. Next season and the season after that. The boys are going to discover some things we've been letting them forget. When they come to my camp, they're going camping, not country clubbing. They're--Say, it's a wonderful morning, isn't it, Fred?"

Soon they stepped out of the woods onto the edge of the playing field. The sun was dazzling, igniting the dewdrops on the grass into a lake of silver fire. To Cole all was light.

Halfway across the field he stopped. Something made him turn and look back. In the shadow of a great pine that reached out over the field he was positive he saw a small, lithe figure move backward into the underbrush. He began to raise his hand, almost unconsciously, in a gesture of greeting. Then he quickly suppressed it as he heard the caretaker clear his throat and felt the old Swede starting at him. He turned and started on. But etched vividly before him was the sun-tanned face of the boy and those large brown eyes in the depths of which burned tiny hearts of flame, wild and secret and beautiful as the forest itself.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Savage Richard
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1985
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