The Woods Behind My House
Ray Bonneville, Copyright 2022
I put on my well-worn rubber boots that have a faded red stripe along the bottom. I have the tops folded down and over a few inches. The inside canvas shows and is frayed, like my Uncle Red’s boots. They remind me of the times when he takes us looking for minnows. Red drives us from camp in his car, with its oblong steering wheel and three-speed transmission, down a dirt road to a farmer’s field to get the minnows. We usually catch three or four dozen before going fishing on the Ottawa River in grandpa’s green rowboat that has a motor on the back.
The operation consists of my brothers, my cousins and I banging sticks into the little muddy creek from both sides, toward where Red is waiting with a net that’s tied to a long stick in the water. When we get to where he’s standing, he lifts the net out quickly and we put the frantic minnows in a perforated bucket within a bucket filled with creek water. Sometimes, in with the minnows there can be little frogs and crayfish, which are also good for fishing.
My family goes to my grandpa’s camp every year for two weeks during the summer. His camp is brown with red trim. There’s no running water, so we have to fill a lot of jugs at a spring by the side of a dirt road about ten miles away. We have a boathouse that smells of gasoline, oil, canvas and old wood. I love all these smells mixed together, and I like being in there. We also have an outhouse that smells plenty bad. Almost everyone who is not a kid around the camp smokes Player or Export cigarettes. I like the cigarettes and want to smoke them too, which I will do before too long.
Ray (center) and his two brothers Jacques and Francois
Red’s camp is up on the hill behind grandpa’s camp. Red is not my real uncle, but that’s what we call him. He is more like a distant relative. His real name is Charlie, and he has a lovely wife and four kids. He was a bomber pilot in the big war and flew a Lancaster. He likes to play tricks on people he likes. When we are fishing and I look away, he tugs my line to make me think I have a bite, then he laughs at my bewilderment.
My father can only spend the second week with us at camp because of his work, so the first week is the only time we can be relaxed, have fun, not have to say the rosary and hear the tiresome religious lectures. I wish Red was my father because he talks to me like I’m important, which is not how my father talks to me. My father talks to me like I’m not a real person yet, but I am. My father seems to think you only become a real person once you’re all grown up, but that’s not true. When you grow up, you just continue to be the same person you’ve always been, only you’re old enough to be on your own. I can’t wait to be on my own so I can choose what to believe and do whatever I want.
At home I’m always on guard when my father is around. He gets mad very fast and then there’s no telling what will happen. He uses physical punishment, which means he hits us. He’s been doing that since I was little. My mother tells us how much he loves us, but those are second-hand words, so they don’t mean much to me. I wonder sometimes why my father had children.
I wolf down a peanut butter sandwich, then go outside. I’m going into the woods today where I can be myself and not be scared like I am at home. But I know that my father and his religion will try to come with me in my mind. My intention is to leave them behind and there can be long minutes when the darkness is not in my head.
I pick up my slingshot and check the inner-tube strips I tied to both tips of the forked branch I cut with my jack-knife. I’ve tied the tips and the leather stone holder with wet string that shrinks tighter when it dries. I may have learned the wet string trick from my father because he is studying to become a scientist, and they know a lot of things other people don’t. One thing almost for sure though, if he did tell me about it, he would have found some way to fit it into his relentless talk about his religion.
“Did you know that Saint so-and-so made stone throwing tools like that too?” He might have said. My Uncle Red would never say that. He would say, “Hey that’s a good-looking slingshot, did you make it yourself? It must be powerful!” Or something similar that makes me feel good about myself.
My father gets very uncomfortable whenever anything having to do with women other than my mother or sex comes up. For example, if we are watching TV as a family and a soap commercial comes on with a woman in the shower, my father shuts the TV off for a couple of minutes until he thinks the danger has passed. I think this comes from his religion somehow, but I don’t know for sure. It seems strange and unnatural to me. I don’t know anything about sex yet, but I’ve heard some of the older boys at school talk about it. They think they know all there is to know about it but I’m not so sure they do. They try to outdo each other with who knows the most and let me tell you I’ve heard them say some pretty weird things.
The pointy tip of my belt hangs forward the way I like. My grey striped jeans have the right wrinkles and frayed places. I like these pants because they are the opposite of the ones my father wears. He wears stodgy ones that are made of some scratchy material. He wears them so high above his waist that it’s embarrassing, even right there in the house with no company around.
I head toward the woods from our house.
Our house has three bedrooms — one dark one for my mother and father with its own bathroom, one for me and my older brother and a third one for my younger brother and my even younger sister. Ours is one of the few inhabited houses among the many rows that are in different stages of being built. My brothers and I like to go into the unfinished ones because they smell of fresh-cut wood, and we like to hear the workers use swear words.
At our religious school they say that using swear words is a sin. They teach a lot of stuff that is very hard to believe. They hit us when they think we are being bad. I have doubts about what they teach us, but a part of me thinks it could be true, so I have to watch out. They try to scare you, and it works. They want you to believe there is a place where you burn forever. You’ll burn there forever if you don’t confess your sins to a creepy priest in a little indoor shed inside their big scary church. Inside the shed it smells of incense and a whole lot of sins.
There are two kinds of sins. One is less serious than the other. With this less serious one you will still have to burn, but only for a little while. The more serious, mortal kind sends you to the burning place forever. When I raise my hand to ask how you can burn forever if you are dead and buried in the ground, the nun says it’s a spiritual kind of burning. What a load, I think, but I’m just a kid and they’re grown-ups, so I go along with what they say because what choice do I have at almost ten years old?
I look back at the house for a couple of steps, then turn my full attention to the line of woods about a quarter of a mile away. The trees start above the brown scar that marks the progress line where they are slowly cutting down the woods to make room for more houses. I resent them doing this because I see the woods as being mine.
I pass a dump-truck and a big yellow shovel with the driver’s seat exposed and a lot of complicated looking levers. One time my brother started up the big shovel. We almost got caught, but we ran away as fast as we could. When the men came, I was in the big shovel and my brother was raising it with one of the levers, so I had to jump down and start running after my brother, who was already running. We stopped running when we thought we were far enough away. We were trying to laugh but couldn’t because we were gasping for air from running so hard.
My blood quickens as I get closer to the tree line. I pick out a few rough, round stones from the ground and nudge one into the leather pouch. I squeeze it tight into the pouch and keep it there at the ready because you never know. The wind makes the leaves of the first line of trees turn and shake, but I’m pretty sure it will be a lot calmer past where I can see.
The first steps I take are sneaky ones. My eyes are busy looking around, so I raise each foot slowly and feel for the mossy ground that I trust will be there. I imagine myself to be a silent, hunting Indian. A small brown bird lands in a young tree about ten feet away. It has shiny little beady eyes. It looks at me, swivels its head once, twice, then it’s gone. There’s no telling what’s in these woods — birds, rabbits, squirrels, turtles, frogs, and…
It’s while I consider the possibility of bigger, more dangerous game that I first hear it calling. It’s a call that seems to command respect and could be loaded with information for the others nearby. I think this because it’s not my first time out here, no sir. I can’t see it yet, so I move carefully toward the sound, my forward foot feeling back and forth like a cat’s whiskers for its next landing spot. My eyes try to penetrate through the foliage deeper into the woods.
I come around a big moss-laden rock, and there, between two main branches of a tree, I see it. Black and fat against the cobalt sky. My prey is perched and looking around. I don’t know why I think it’s a female, but I do. Maybe it’s because of the pride she seems to have. The way she turns her head to look around tells me she is keenly alert and knows what’s what. I want her to look the other way so I can take another step without spooking her, but she doesn’t care what I want.
I step on a dry twig, and she snaps her head toward me. I am about forty feet away. I freeze and avoid looking her in the eyes. My heart is pounding, my right hand is sweaty, and the stone-holding leather pouch is moist. She seems to want to take off but stays put and calls out a couple of times. I sit tight against a birch tree and breathe as quietly as I can. The bark on the birch tree is stripping off in ragged ribbons, curling and dark at the edges.
I think the big crow is too far away for me to take a shot, but I decide to try anyway. I aim my slingshot a little higher than the crow to compensate for gravity, then pull the stone all the way back until my right hand is next to my ear. The crow takes off just as I let the stone fly, and I watch it arc high in the air, then fall after hitting the tree with a hollow sound. She is laughing at me as she flies away.