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Back to Nature
His face was almost touching the computer screen. The thick glasses reflected the words that flickered down across the glass in a cathode-ray procession. His fingers scuttled busily over the keyboard, and periodically he pressed RETURN, adding his own contribution to the high-count text turnover. His bare feet were small and pale, and his clothing was just mismatched enough to be considered distasteful.
A shrill voice darted up the stairs like a rodent. "Richie! When are you going to do your chores?"
The boy scowled, mousy brown hair falling into his eyes. "In a sec, mom. Just give it a rest, willya? And call me Richard. You know I hate that nickname." He turned back to the computer screen. His eyes widened at the latest message.
His mother was not done with him, though. She marched up the stairs like a juggernaut. Her massive bulk tired her, and she stopped in front of Richard's door. "Richie, you told me that an hour ago and you haven't even emptied the trash on the computer screen. Now, when are you going to do your chores?"
The boy looked at her irritably. "All right, then." He clicked the mouse on the desktop displayed on the monitor and selected "empty trash" from a menu. The icon of a bulging trash can slimmed, its curving lines straightening out. His mother frowned.
"Richie, don't get impudent with me."
He knew that tone too well to resist. He only gave a token protest against the name "Richie" as he went downstairs to empty the physical trash.
A car pulled up in the driveway. It was a small car and a relatively cheap one. A small, anemic man got out. He lifted a briefcase with difficulty, and walked toward the house. His wife called him from the door. The permanent, hateful sneer on her slovenly face deepened, and her small eyes narrowed. "Wally?"
He spoke tiredly. "Yes, dear?"
"You must do something with that boy of ours. He won't listen to me. Teach him some manners!"
"All right, Mary. I'll see what I can do." With a resigned attitude, Wallace started to climb the stairs. Then his wife hailed him from the bottom of the staircase.
"I just had the best idea. You can take Richie for a camping trip!"
"What do we want a camping trip for? We got him that nice computer...."
She would not be deterred. "Yes, but Richie needs to get out more. Maybe this will start him on the right path. And it will teach him discipline. You both can--" She searched for a word. "Get back to nature."
Wallace crumpled. He was as leery of camping as Richard would be, and he most definitely did not want to 'get back to nature', but when Mary put her foot down, what she said went and that was that. He turned and began walking back up the stairs as Mary went to the phone to make reservations at the nearest national park.
"Do we really have to go to the campgrounds?" Richard was resisting the idea even after the authority of his mother had been called into action.
Wallace was sweating profusely. He was not used to taking a stand this long, but the shadow of his wife kept him on track. He was caught between a rock and a hard place. "Yes, son, we have to go to the campgrounds. Your mother has already made the reservations."
Richard sighed. "All right." He turned back to the computer screen and posted the message that he would be gone camping for a while; when he had gone to Science Camp without alerting his online cohorts, their e-mail box had overflowed with concerned letters from worried friends. He joined his father in carrying the tent, pads, sleeping bags, food, and other survival necessities out to the car. When the loading was done, and Mary had made the reservations, the father and son squeezed into the packed car and chugged off to Blue Rock Campgrounds.
It was not so bad, actually. There were all kinds of animals in the park. Bears, deer, skunks squirrels, and Richard hoped that he would see a fox. His online character, ArthritisX, was a vulpine. The campground was overflowing with jeeps, station wagons, and trailers. He felt a little out of place in their small Toyota. Richard was not a sociable type, and the crowds of people made him nervous. He decided to take a walk, and strode away to a path leading through the woods.
He walked for several miles, but stayed on the path. Then he saw a flash of red. His ears pricked up, and he surveyed the forest intently. He found the fox without too much trouble as it crossed the path ahead of him. His heart skipped a beat. The fox was beautiful. The red fur, the white "socks," and the black bush of the tail were stunning. The fox was carrying a stick in its mouth. Richard was too mesmerized by the grace of the animal to wonder why it was carrying a piece of wood.
The fox made eye contact with Richard. For an eternity the boy met the animal's eyes. Then the fox's head lowered and he placed the stick gently on the ground. The animal vanished easily in the underbrush. Dazed, Richard walked forward and picked up the stick. It was a long, round piece of a branch.
"Dad, can I have a knife?" Richard walked up to his father, who was dealing with his allergies with a box of tissues.
Wallace had always had dreams of his son as a manly, all-American boy. The kid had disappointed those dreams so far, but a knife fit his dream perfectly. He smiled wanly. "Why, sure, Rich." Rich was his chosen nickname for his son; he thought that it was more manly than Richie.
They walked together, father and son, to the visitor center to purchase a penknife.
Richard was busy. He focused intently on his knife. He peeled off another sliver of wood with it. A fox's muzzle was emerging from the wood. It was remarkably realistic. Richard had more talent than was apparent.
An hour later, he was almost done. A fox's head had taken shape from the block of wood. The left ear just needed a little touch. He brought the knife around. The blade slipped through the wood and Richard's thumb. He gasped at the sight of the red blood welling up from the cut. Then the pain hit him. He dropped the knife and sculpture on the ground, and his blood fell gently on the fox's smiling muzzle.
Richard decided that he would go for another walk in the woods. His finger--actually, his whole hand--was still hurting, despite the Advil he'd taken for relief, and he needed to blow off some steam. A hike would be just the thing.
He picked up his fox-head and walked away from the campgrounds, on the same trail that he found the fox on. It was singularly beautiful; the trees were lush and green, the vegetation was thick, even the lichens on the tree-trunks were more brilliantly gray than usual. Then he saw the rabbit.
He didn't know what made him look in that direction, but when he did, the essence of the rabbit entered him through every pore. His most powerful impression of the rabbit was not powerful legs, white fur, or long ears. It was the blood, the meat. He leapt after it.
Richard chased the rabbit through the woods, not stopping to rest or think or worry about getting lost. But he did. When he finally lost the rabbit's trail, he had hopelessly lost the path as well. He was panting, tongue feeling heavy and thick. His heels hurt, too; he fell to the ground on his hands and knees to recover his wind.
In a short while, he got back up. He was walking on the balls of his feet now, since his heels hurt like crazy, and he had pulled a muscle in his back, so he was almost hunched over. He tried vainly to find the path he came from, but it was no help. He was completely, utterly, and unconditionally lost.
"Richard?" His father called. "Richard? Where are you? It's time for dinner!"
There was no answer but a loud, obscene reply from a nearby camper to the end that he should stop yelling and go inside his tent to mate with his hand.
Wallace was beginning to get nervous. "Richard?" He uncharacteristically ignored the order from the nearby camper. The marrow grew cold in his bones. He ran around the campsite looking for his son, and finally got lost. He had to ask a ranger for directions to get back to his camp--without his son.
Richard was depressed. He had forgotten his whistle, so he couldn't make a sound signal--he knew how far his voice would travel in the forest--and he certainly hadn't brought any flares with him. He was tired and thirsty. Then he saw a convenient stream.
He racked his brains, but couldn't think of any warnings about the flowing water in that area. It was curiously unimportant, anyway. He knelt over the stream and clumsily sucked/lapped the water into his mouth, disdaining the use of his hands. They were feeling funny, probably from being clenched into fists during the long run. In his reflection he saw that his hair had a reddish tint, and that there were patches of white. He attributed it to the water's shallow bottom, black rocks and brown mud.
When he was no longer thirsty, but extremely wet (he had managed to fall in a couple times), he left the riverbank. He decided to take off his wet clothes; it was a warm evening, and they felt cold and unpleasant and constricting. Perhaps they shrunk from the dousing. He pulled them off and left them by the riverbank, then walked away, unashamedly naked. After going about three hundred yards, he walked straight into a branch.
There were berries and recognizable plants to eat, which he recognized from his nature guide, so he wasn't hungry. His tailbone ached from sitting on the rocky ground and searching for roots, and his heels and back weren't any better. His hands hadn't improved either. He had been wandering in the forest for several days, but for most of that time he had been dazed from his extremely close encounter of the deciduous kind. He wasn't quite sure what had happened those days, but he still clenched his sculpture in his hand. His body was smaller than he remembered, even given his normal small size, and hairy to boot. His hair was red as fire. He walked hunched over and on his toes all the time. Richard--he vaguely remembered the name from somewhere--was thirsty again (though the berries were juicy, they weren't plentiful or tasty) and decided to go to a stream and get a drink.
He lapped water with an oddly long tongue. For several seconds he was absorbed in his activity, but then he looked up. He very nearly fell into the stream.
The face that looked back at him from the water was like a horrible, if oddly fascinating, cross between a fox and a--he fumbled for the word briefly--human. The shock of seeing red fur and black nose jerked him out of his daze. He was Richard again, and he was scared. He started shaking, though his fur kept him warm, and promptly fell into the stream. His sense of balance was off. He noted belatedly that he had a bushy red tail with a black tip.
With a sudden, horrible suspicion, he looked at the carving clutched in his fumbling hand. The hand, he noticed, was almost a paw; the fingers were stubby, almost vestigial, and adorned with pads. The face of his carving was almost, but not entirely, a perfectly-detailed mask of Richard's dimly remembered face. Did he look like the fox-head that was once cut out of the wood? For the life of him, he couldn't remember.
As he looked at the grinning head in his hands, it changed subtly. The ears shortened and moved farther down on the skull, the nose shortened further, the features changed slightly. Richard felt his own face change in the opposite direction: toward foxhood. He howled in emotional pain and rage and burst into a full sprint, leaving behind on the bank some things that looked to his eyes like woven grasses. His three-day discarded clothing, covered with mud, was completely unrecognizable to him in his current state.
He came to a long, cleared path of dirt familiar from a time beyond his memory. A fox slipped across the path, and he stopped dead in his tracks. Once again he was Richard.
And he knew with a cold certainty what he had to do.
His loping, quadrupedal gait made it difficult to use his hands, but he managed. The carved head was lifted and brought into a clearing. Not a blade of grass stirred. Richard lifted a clawed hand, winced, and brought it down on his palm. He flinched as the sharp claw cut the pad and blood flowed, but he managed to get enough use out of his hands to smear the head with his blood, even as they shifted further into a fox's paws. The blood sank in as though the carving was drinking his blood.
Wallace was in hysterics. His son had been missing for three days, and he was helpless. Mary would turn him into hamburger when he got home, and the National Guard had been questioning him mercilessly, nearly triggering a nervous breakdown. Then he was tapped on the shoulder.
Wallace was not an unobservant man, and somewhat paranoid; he was aware of what went on around him, but his son had unconsciously crept up on him too silently for him to detect. It was definitely Richard, but the boy had changed, somehow. His nails were a bit thick, and his hair had darkened to black with a few white strands, but the biggest difference was in his bearing. He had new muscles, and the slight chubbiness that had been his plague for years was gone. Richard was wiry, strong, and capable after his stint in the wilderness, but it was definitely Richard. Wallace cried out in joy and hugged his son to him. Richard felt distinctly uncomfortable.
They walked in the door. Mary frowned in displeasure; she had enjoyed not having them around, contaminating her life. Wallace wanly carried in his sleeping bag, followed by Richard. But something was different about her son. Something about the way he carried himself, or the expression on his face. Maybe he even had new musculature on his arms. The wooden fox-head carving hanging from his belt looked at her mischievously. She had misgivings about trying to boss her son around, which made her nervous and more than a little bit frightened.
She covered her confusion with bluster. "So, how was the trip? Anything special happen? Did you have fun?"
Father looked at son. Son looked at father. Finally, Richard looked at his parents. How unfamiliar they were! For the first time in his life, he pitied his small, ego-challenged, wishy-washy, zero-self-esteem wrung out washcloth of a father. It was a frightening feeling. He suddenly found himself wondering what he ever saw in the slovenly lump of cynicism, dominance, and mindless hate that was his mother. He suppressed his grimace of distaste. "Nothing, mom. Nothing happened. But I think you're right. I did need to get back to nature."
He turned, grinning suddenly, and walked up the stairs. Mary made a motion as if to follow him, but lost momentum and came to a halt. Her face sank. The fox's stared at her from her son's waist as Richard climbed the stairs to his room.
Back to Nature copyright 1997 by Jesse Reeve.
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