The Way of the Woods

The girls in Troop 17 found the dead baby while hunting mushrooms for their Outdoor Edibles badge. It lay at the base of a cottonwood tree, naked and perfectly white, they told us over a lunch of hotdogs and pudding cups. One eye half-open. We couldn’t help but picture the groggy-looking blinds in the bunkhouse restroom.

Local police closed off the Camp Chapawee trails with yellow tape to search for clues, but they did not practice what our Scout Handbook called “The Way of the Woods.” We were taught to tread softly upon the forest floor, heel-to-toe, like our Native American sisters, to crouch beneath branches instead of breaking them, to communicate with hand signals and whistles. That afternoon when we tried to earn our Bird Call badges, there was nothing to hear but the whine of ATVs and the static chirp of walkie talkies.

Scuba divers came to scour the lake bed. We worked on our Insect Classification badges as they dredged up bikini bottoms and fishing poles and piled unmatched swim flippers upon the shore like a stack of catfish.

The Camp Mothers told us not to dwell on the infant, but we were obsessed. We used our Sign Language skills, folding our arms into a cradle to say baby. We hadn’t yet learned the sign for dead, so we dragged our fingers across our necks and lolled our tongues out the side of our mouths. We finger spelled the name we’d given her—K-A-T-E—after a fashion model we all longed to be, the one with jutting cow-bone hips and sloe eyes.

The paper mache maracas we made for Music Appreciation became baby rattles. Our woven pot holders for Pioneer Art were her blankets. We longed to offer them up, to honor dead baby K-A-T-E with Camp Chapawee respect. We wanted to build her a ceremonial fire, to chant the songs from the back pages of our Scout Handbook.

For our Constellation Identification badges we slept beneath the stars. We dreamt of willow bark papooses, dead fish, and fashion models. And when a terrible scream woke us with a start—our hearts beating furiously beneath breasts, flat and taut as deer hide drums—the Camp Mothers soothed us back to sleep, telling us not to worry. We’d soon learn for our Nocturnal Creatures badge that the wail of mating bobcats sounds just like the cry of a newborn babe.

Audra Kerr Brown

Audra Kerr Brown lives betwixt the corn and soybean fields of southeast Iowa. Her work can be found at Fiction Southeast, (b)OINK, Cheap Pop, Fjords Review, and People Holding, among others.

Margriet Forsten

Artwork by Margriet Forsten.