Snipe Hunting

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I know everybody blames me for what happened to Rocky Wilson, but when you know the story from the beginning you’ll see it really wasn’t my fault. It was at Camp Hawaka, summer going into seventh grade. By then we’d been going for a couple years, a bunch of us, so we had stuff down pat. I knew, for instance, how to skip prayer circle. I knew how to not finish the pitcher of juice so I had to refill it. I knew how to bite off my fingernails when they got too long, I knew how important it was to pack sneezing powder and extra underwear. I also knew about snipe hunting.
It was an unofficial tradition at camp. Line the new guys up, all wide eyed and knobby and tell them about the elusive snipe of the New Hampshire woods. They did it to me my first year and I still have the scars from then when I tripped on Billy Harold’s foot and went crashing into the blackberry patch. All those scars and no d*mn snipes.
Anyway, even though Rocky was my age, it was his first year and so after swimming one day he and all the little newbies were clustered against the late afternoon sky waiting for the promised expedition. I like saying things like “against the late afternoon sky” for dramatic effect, but really they were all sort of squatting around in the bunk house playing go fish. Me and Mark made a rousing speech though, and they perked up.
“The Snipe,” I told them, making my eyes squinty and my voice full of steel. “Is a scurrilous creature with feral instincts, talons and a characteristic blue. It is approximately the size of a very large and over fed guinea pig and is immensely attracted to the scent of peanut butter.”
The little kids and Rocky Wilson looked at me wide eyed. The littlest one chewed on the edge of his playing card. Rocky Wilson clenched and unclenched his toes.
“Today,” I said, “We are on a mission to find one, to subdue him, and to put him, with the utmost respect, into the director’s office. To do this!”
I paused here for dramatic effect, remembering some footage I’d seen of Dr. King and how he let pauses rumble quietly along until Bam! He hit them with a metaphor or simile or really important idea in a big baritone and they listened and went crazy and cheered.
“To do this!” I told them, “We must cover ourselves in peanut butter, walk stealthily along the forest floor, and keep our eyes peeled.”
At this point, Mark, who was acting as my assistant for the whole thing, a kind of Vanna White, came forward. He was holding peanut butter. The kids were eager, reached their hands in, started smearing. They were clearly not cognizant of the rarity of blue animals in the deciduous forests of New England. Rocky was pretty gung ho, too. Well not so gung, or even ho, really. Reluctant would be a better word.
He didn’t want to break out, he said. It was bad for his pores, he said.

Mark and I looked at each other, grimaced. Not the type of thing you said at summer camp. We took it upon ourselves to massage the peanut butter into his face, gently, thoroughly.

“We used crunchy so it would exfoliate,” we said.
Then we picked up the rest of the guys from the basketball court and we trundled along into the woods, Mark lagging behind because he had stopped to pee. The little guys were getting into it, peering under rocks, rumps in the air, shaking small bushes. I could tell Rocky was alert, too, scanning the air above him for flashes of blue.
We walked and walked, the ferns dragging along my legs and the strange green stillness of the woods sucking us further inside. Rocky kept swiveling his head around, flinching as the boy before him let go of a branch more suddenly than necessary. We were bushwhacking, which was strictly forbidden by camp policy, but clearly the higher ups had never gone looking for snipes.
“You’re not just gonna find one of these critters on a path”, I’d told Hank when he’d asked why, and how much longer the walk was. I was beginning to feel bad, actually, like the joke might be over. They were starting to itch, you could tell. I remembered how it felt to have the peanut butter slowly drying on your skin. I remembered the slick stick of peanutbuttery fingers. Rocky had pink stripes along his cheeks from where his nails had dug in, an odd Indian war paint.
We fell behind a little, Rocky and me. Both of us had taken a bathroom break, and the other guy’s had kept going, their calls of “here snipey snipey” fading into the dense trees. I was beginning to see flashes of blue in my peripheral vision. I was beginning to be a little lost. The light slanted down, staining and dappling the ferns. Rocky looked at me quietly through oily lenses. He scratched his cheek.
“Seen any snipes yet?” I said. “Ha! Ha!”

The “ha’s” were the awful type that you project from your abdomen, clenching and tossing them out. They grated against my throat.
Rocky told me that he had. It was nesting, though, he said, he didn’t want to disturb it.

“Snipes most typically give birth in June,” I told him. “This one must have been behind. Did you see any young? They’re famously fierce and fiery.” I gave him my wry grin, the lopsided eyebrow one that gets my mom every time. She also likes alliteration.
He didn’t smile. He told me we’d probably have better luck if I had peanut butter on, too, that I smelled too human, too boyish. He scraped some off his arms and smeared it on my face, pulling back my cheeks the way I do when I pretend to have had plastic surgery. It was too sudden, too unexpected for me to react. He held them like that longer than necessary, pulled them harder. The chunks of peanut bit into my skin.

He striped some down my nose and turned on his heel.

“Better,” he said, “Let’s go.”
We walked some more, Rocky in front this time. He let the branches snap back at me more suddenly than necessary, stopping periodically to examine tracks and sniff the air. It was almost time for dinner. We were going to be in trouble if we were late, but after we’d passed the abandoned hen house I knew our general location.

“I think I see the path.” I said. “Let’s head back, we can try again tomorrow.”

He told me that he hadn’t put on all this peanut butter for nothing.

“I want a snipe,” He said, and this time it was he who let the pause rumble along before him, let it go so long that when he said, “You go back,” in a voice that was not so much baritone but still impressive, I did. I looked at him and left. I walked straight back to camp in time for dinner and washed my face and ate three hot dogs and went to bed. The counselors talked in small worried knots. Groups left with flashlights.

The next morning I saw Rocky Wilson standing on the dock. His hair was matted and dull in the morning light. Peanut butter was crusted on new pimples like a really poorly chosen foundation. There was guilt somewhere in my stomach.
“I had one by the tail feathers,” he told me, “But it got away.”





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Odessa_Sterling00 said...
May 11, 2011 at 8:52 pm

So what happened to him?  He just got in trouble?

 

 
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