The God of the Woods


The following is from Liz Moore’s The God of the Woods. Moore is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Long Bright River, which was a Good Morning America Book Club Pick and one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of the year, as well as the acclaimed novels Heft and The Unseen World. A winner of the 2014-2015 Rome Prize in Literature, she lives in Philadelphia.

June 1975

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This, Tracy learned, was Camp Emerson: Three buildings formed its northernmost edge, closest to the main house up the hill. One was the commissary, where they ate their meals; the next a building called the Great Hall, which contained a nurse’s office, two small rooms that could be used for activities on rainy days, and a large community room that was mainly used for dances and performances that required a stage. The third building in this small cluster was the Director’s Cabin. The only campers who had ever seen inside it were those who had gotten into trouble of one kind or another.

South of these buildings lay the rest of the campground. Near the lake at the eastern edge were a small beach and a boathouse. A long building called Staff Quarters sat at the southern border of the grounds—this was where kitchen workers and other seasonal staff resided. To the north of it were fourteen cabins—seven for boys, seven for girls—in two lines on opposite sides of a creek that could be crossed by small bridges here and there. Every one of these cabins was named after an Adirondack tree or flower.

Tracy’s cabin, Balsam, was lit inside by warm yellow bulbs that hung, uncovered, from the ceiling. At night, these same lightbulbs summoned an army of insects through the tattered screens in the cabin’s windows.

The cabin was furnished with eight twin beds, four and four against opposite sides. Small wooden trunks sat at the foot of each bed. The cabin’s walls were made of unfinished wood, and so too was its ceiling, inscribed with names and dates and inscrutable references by generation after generation of campers.

Most surprisingly, against one wall of the cabin was a fireplace. Tracy was told, later that summer, that the cabins originally had been used year‑round by friends of earlier generations of Van Laars on short hunting trips; but since the founding of Camp Emerson, the fireplaces had gone unused, except by bats that occasionally colonized the chimneys and then had to be relocated.

*

That first day, after the mothers—and Donna Romano—had disappeared, the counselor and counselor‑in‑training sat the campers in a circle to begin icebreaking exercises.

It was during these exercises that it became clear to Tracy that all the other girls in her cabin had known each other for years. They tossed catchphrases and gestures back and forth as if playing ball, buckling with laughter from time to time for reasons she couldn’t discern. Inside jokes, Tracy thought—a term that terrorized her with its implication that anyone who didn’t understand them was, by definition, an outsider.

The other revelation that came out of these exercises was that there was a definite hierarchy among Tracy’s cabinmates.

At the top, of course, were Louise and Annabel, the counselor and the CIT. Both were beautiful in different ways: Louise, at twenty‑three, seemed to be a woman already. She was short, much shorter than Tracy, with long dark hair and dark eyebrows and the bearing of an athlete. She was also—a word Tracy had learned earlier that year—stacked. Annabel was seventeen, tall, willowy, fair, a ballet dancer who moved with all the assurance of someone whose family had never had to worry about paying a bill. Tracy loved them both immediately. She had the weird desire to miniaturize them, to take them out and play with them like dolls.

Next came Balsam’s campers, who ranged in status from the two Melissas—the clear rulers, wiry blond gymnasts from Manhattan’s Upper East Side—to a girl named Kim, who had the habit of speaking, at length, on topics no one else seemed to care about.

Last in the line came Tracy, whose size, she believed, was already drawing stares from the others. Upon being asked to introduce herself, she found that her voice had been completely taken from her. A slow resignation settled in: this was what her summer would be like. She’d keep to herself. She’d speak to no one. She’d go unnoticed, hiding behind books whenever possible. Staying out of it. Blending in.

She unpacked the last of her belongings. From her toiletry kit she removed the new glasses she had been prescribed that year; these she placed at the back of the single drawer she’d been assigned. It would be better, she thought, not to see anything too clearly this summer.

Suddenly she was blinking hard. To cry now would be catastrophic—and yet the disappointment of it all weighed heavily on her shoulders. Because there was always a part of her—despite her understanding, cultivated over years of such disappointments, of where she would fall in any social hierarchy—there was always a part of her that hoped that this time would be different. That some graceful, lissome boy or girl would have the patience and acuity to pick Tracy out of a crowd, take notice of one of the positive qualities that she infrequently allowed herself to number: her sense of humor, or her drawing ability, or her singing voice, or her loyalty, her devotion to anyone who showed her even a modicum of interest.

Tugging her ill‑fitting uniform shirt down over her ill‑fitting uniform shorts, Tracy exhaled, releasing entirely the hope she had had for the summer.

At the opening campfire that night, Tracy looked on as a series of strange songs and rituals were performed at the bottom of a natural amphitheater, a little hill that led down to a patch of grassless land. On the hill, large split logs had been set up as rough benches, with an aisle down the center. The dark lake was just visible beyond.

A certain energy was appreciable in the air: it was the energy of teenage hormones, of sidelong glances, a taking note of who had changed over the past year, and in what ways. It wasn’t just the campers, but the counselors, too. All over, they were sidling toward one another, whispering in each other’s ears, making gestures Tracy could not understand. Each one of them, she would learn, was a celebrity in his or her way; campers strove earnestly to learn facts about them, about their home lives and romantic prospects and heartbreaks; these facts were then traded eagerly as whispers in the dark.

In front of them, the presentations continued. Several counselors performed a ritual that involved the chopping of a log; announcements were made about new policies, facilities, events.

Then came skits. One—a dramatic enactment of the rule that had made such an impression on Tracy earlier—involved a large male counselor affecting the voice and gait of a small child and walking around and around the campfire to illustrate his confusion.

“I thought I knew where I was going,” said the counselor, projecting his voice with aplomb—“but it turns out I did not!”

And a female counselor strode forward to goad the crowd.

“What should Calvin do?” she asked, mock‑seriously. She placed her hands on her cheeks.

When lost, yelled the crowd, in chorus, sit down and yell.

“Help!” said Calvin. “I need help!” He checked an invisible watch. “One minute has gone by,” he exclaimed, “so I guess I should yell again!” The reason for this was provided: an attempt to extract oneself from the woods could lead to disorientation, could pull even an experienced woodsman irretrievably into the Adirondack forest. The terrain was dense, with thick underbrush; when the trail was no longer in sight, it all looked the same.

“Sixty‑five percent of people,” said Calvin, “are less than twenty feet from a trail when they first begin to feel disoriented.”

Tracy listened, fascinated. She imagined the pull of the woods, the cool, shadowy smell of them, the velvet of moss on rock—and then the gradual realization that she’d lost her bearings. The slow horror of accepting her predicament.

In between skits, the male counselors roughhoused with one another, with their charges. Called out to girls across the semicircle. Kevin thinks you’re a fox!

Then a tall, thin woman strode right into the center of things. She stood in front of the fire, silhouetted by the flames, looking something like the way Tracy had always pictured Ichabod Crane.

Everyone fell silent.

“Welcome,” said the woman. She introduced herself to newcomers: she was the camp director, T.J., and everyone was invited to call her that.

Her age was difficult to discern. At some angles, she looked very young—in her twenties, maybe—but her voice bore a gravelly authority, something Tracy wasn’t used to hearing in women her age. Everyone stopped and listened, even the loud male counselors, who otherwise hadn’t shut up.

The woman—T.J.—took out a piece of paper that seemed to have reminders on it.

She went through them, one by one.

She emphasized and elaborated upon the same rules from earlier. Dispensed a few others, as well: any camper caught outside his or her cabin after curfew would be given one warning and commissary duty for two nights. A second infraction would lead to dismissal from camp.

She paused then, looking up.

Above her, the pine branches were lit orange by the fire. Beyond them, the sky was as black as Tracy had ever seen it, and as full of stars.

“Another thing,” said T.J. “Due to the concern of certain parents, this year’s Survival Trip will look a little different.”

A collective groan.

T.J. held up a hand. “Now listen,” she said. “You’ll still be on your own, in groups. You’ll all be responsible for your own well‑being. The only difference is, you’ll have a counselor nearby for those three nights. But they’ll stay about a hundred yards away, unless there’s an emergency you can’t resolve yourselves.”

Silence. And then a solitary voice—male—booed loudly. The rest of the group laughed.

Tracy waited, breath held, to see what T.J. would do. She didn’t look like someone who suffered fools gladly. But she grinned.

“I don’t like it either,” she said. “Trust me.”

*

That night, after lights‑out, Tracy lay in her bed, looking up into darkness, listening first to silence and then to the low sound of stories told in whispers and laughs.

She was alone. She would remain so. Her only job, she told herself, was to make it through the summer.

__________________________________

From The God of the Woods by Liz Moore. Copyright © 2024 by Liz Moore. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.



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