Lady of the Ants

When we got out of the car and stood in the parking lot, Eva and I discovered we were Woodlanders.

“Across the field,” said a big lady.

I heard the word “bye” sprinkled around me like rainfall and I said my own bye – “See you in a week!” said my mother. I could see my sisters in the car, their faces at the window. I turned and followed my cousin across the field.

When we found the Woodlanders section Eva and I walked up the wooden steps of the first platform tent. I chose the cot next to the front tent flaps and Eva took the one close to mine.

Then we heard a rough shout and a whistle. We stopped talking and looked out of the tent. It was the big lady, and she wanted everyone to sit in front of her. She stood with her hands on her hips in a brown T-shirt and dirty jeans and she did not smile. I thought of my mother’s red and white tank top.

We sat cross-legged in the dirt in front of the big lady and she told us her name was Molga.

My cousin laughed.

Molga knew who laughed and held her stare on Eva. I giggled and knew my giggle was wrong. We watched as Molga’s arm raised in the air like a tree branch as she bent down toward Eva, and before I realized what was happening she slapped my cousin’s leg. She said a story about being good and I felt badly for my cousin and scared for me so I stayed quiet.

Soon we walked in a line to the lake in our one-pieces and learned from the swim counselor that the lake had fresh water sharks. I stayed by the edge until someone made me jump in for a swim test. I looked for sharks as I swam, panicking, and wanted to go home.

At bedtime we laughed with the girls in our tent about Molga and imitated her voice and pretended we were Frankenstein. But as the silliness of lights-out turned into dark, a true dark with no access to a kitchen light, the night became a hovering presence outside our tent. Serious questions about Molga began. We tied our tent flaps together and took out flashlights. When animal screams came from the woods we leapt near each other next to Eva’s cot, the dark now owning the tent we were to sleep in and our thoughts reflected the primitive shift – “maybe she’s a woods witch.”

Eva separated a space between the tent flaps and called the name in a spooky way…

“MOL-GAHHHHH….”

We giggled, then crawled under our blankets. I hid my face underneath and held my flashlight.

The next morning I took out my toothbrush and sat on the edge of my cot. I watched Molga at the group sink. Her arm muscles looked like chopped wood. She did not brush her teeth dainty. I realized we had not seen Molga laugh or teach but maneuver around as if she lived in the woods with the screaming animals and did not know people.

“Are you going to brush your teeth?” asked Eva.

“No,” I said.

“Let’s leave now to eat,” said Eva, and walked down the tent’s steps.

“Shouldn’t we wait for Molga?”

My cousin started talking to a tentmate so I followed.

Eva led us through the woods instead of the path. We pushed back branches and crunched on dry leaves, the woods leaving small traces of itself in our hair and scratches on our skin. When we found the food building we ignored the Woodlanders and sat together in the corner. Between us was a nuance of survival, and it replaced our giggles.

A serious lady in a green blouse came over to us, hesitating. “Where’s your counselor?”

“We don’t know,” said Eva. The rest of us stayed silent and watched Eva.

Eva stood and announced she was getting food. We followed.

While we ate, I was quiet, hungry, but then a girl in our group broke the silence. Her open-faced peanut butter sandwich landed in the middle of our table and we laughed. It was funny! Then in a single movement we each grabbed the food on our plates and threw it at each other. Food went everywhere. On the table, in our hair, on the floor, and we laughed and laughed and laughed!

We were stopped as fast as we started and we couldn’t go swimming (who cared). We were given brooms and washcloths and we were to clean the mess. The adults were stern and angry, circling us like wolves as we cleaned. I was still hungry.

As we walked back to our tent, I lagged far behind. I was upset we had gotten into such big trouble. It made me want home more than ever. I hurried back to our tent and saw Eva sweeping the top step, and Molga walking over to her, slowly. I stopped. Other girls did, too.

Molga paused at the bottom of the steps and stared up at Eva. Her hands were in her jean pockets with her elbows sticking out.

Eva continued sweeping.

Molga said something. She placed one boot on the bottom step but in a single movement, Eva swept her pile straight into Molga’s face.

*

That night, in our tent, we started to get ready for bed. We now had chores amongst ourselves. I went to the rolled-up tent flaps in the back and started to untie them. Did I see rice krispees in the rolled-up flaps? As the roll unfurled a loud waterfall of black ants fell from the roll like hard rain on the tent floor. I screamed. We all screamed.

“Eva!” I screamed.

Big black ants scattered like marbles. The ants crunched under our feet. It was sickening. We pushed and swept and kicked the ants off the platform and back into the woods. We kept screaming as we worked. I don’t know how long it took.

We got rid of the ants by ourselves.

Big, Blue Duffel: Intro to the Canada Series

(circa 1980)

An original life is unexplored territory.
You don’t get there by taking a taxi—
You get there by carrying a canoe
. –Alan Alda

The Canada series starts in LaGuardia airport in New York, with my mother running after the camp director, yelling at his flanneled back, “Make sure my daughter takes her medicine!”

Did he nod? He had a plane to catch.

Those were different days, when kids ran out the front door saying, “Bye!” Or if they explained their whereabouts at all, just hopped on a bike and pedaled away.

Now my cousin and I hopped on a plane with our blue, camp-sanctioned duffel bags and headed to the great outdoors. Eva’s duffel bag was stretched tight at the zipper, full of Noxema, a big hand mirror, Sassoon jeans, little luxuries and functionalities but no snacks. The snacks would have come in handy, cousin. Me, I packed Jordache jeans, a brush, socks and underwear, a new bottle of pink Tickle deoderant that would barely break its seal, a notebook and pen.

I was so excited.

We were camping, heading into the woods. Not backdoor woods, but Canadian woods full of bears and blueberries and real tents and cooking over a fire and if the wood was wet, oh well! Eat crackers! The Canada I knew from the globe in the corner of the library at school would soon display an uncharted view of nature, including the decadence of uncountable shooting stars that would draw across the night sky above our sleeping bags. And it would make us strong. I didn’t know that then, of course, being 13 and half-wondering if I would ever be able to plug in my curling iron.

We would be gone for the month of July. It was my uncle’s idea. Eva would be in the front of our canoe, I would be in the back. Together, with our group of ten 13-year-olds and two counselors whom we considered ancient but were a mere 16 and 17, we paddled over 300 miles around Ontario’s lake regions, portaged over 20 miles, taking turns carrying the canoes themselves and the dreaded sack of cans that gave us bruise stripes on both shoulders. We were tough by the end, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild: Eva and I stole food, swam naked, swung a few punches, climbed a firetower so tall it swayed in the wind, ate chicken from a can and sucked on the bones, came nose to nose with a mother moose, jumped off a cliff, saw my first naked penis (several actually), slept under stars so vast that God was watching us sleep, saw the end of a giant rainbow, slid down mossy rocks on our bare feet laughing into the black lake. All without a cell phone. Or a registered RN on duty. Or special water bottles (we leaned over the canoes to drink from the lakes with our hands). Or supervision, for that matter. This was camp!

We were children set loose in the Canadian wilderness, trusted to look after ourselves. Just to be super clear, there were no music lessons with a guitar somewhere along the way, no water shoes, no arts and crafts projects, no adult. I don’t remember seeing a first-aid kit, but I can’t say I looked for it either, even when I twisted my ankle. I think it was Eva who brought along the Bandaids and nursed me back to health. I think I shampooed once. I say all this to set the stage. We did have Coppertone SPF 4 until it ran out, and a campfire every morning and night because we needed it to cook, to eat.

I sound like the old man who walked a mile to the one-room schoolhouse in the snow. I get you, old man! Since life now is so different, life then seems so unique! And since this eye-rolling Girl Scout begrudgingly sewed sit-upons out of used tablecloths while the boy scouts went camping, the heavy wish in my heart was now here before me, laid out like a prize, which taught me this: I should believe that wishes, even unspoken ones, come true. What a beautiful thing to come across at 13. How I would depend on this later.
Girl canoeing
Next up: Canada Series, The Send Off