by Doug Bootes
You’re 13. For nearly a year your uncle’s been preparing five of you for a ten-day journey into the wilderness with minimal gear (a poncho/tarp, fishing line and two hooks, a knife, a bow, six arrows, a communal cast iron pot to cook in, matches).
Throughout the winter, you met weekly and studied a dog-eared, faded blue, Navy pilot survival manual written to enable pilots to survive a crash or ejection into any conceivable terrain or environment.
You learned about plants you could eat. You practiced with your bows. You sharpened your knives. You would become hunters and gatherers, but mostly, hunters, because that’s how you see yourselves, no matter how many books they put in front of you. You would become men.
Summer has arrived.
The first night of the trip you cut branches to make a tripod for your poncho/tarp. You wake around midnight, lightning flashing, wind snapping the tarp away just as you grab it and wrap it around yourself. Heavy rain, wind, then a strange tickling feeling on your feet and legs. You’ve set up camp on a large ant mound. You and the ants suffer through the storm together.
For the next two days and nights, your group’s mutual consumption amounts to a weak gray stew of cattail roots and an unlucky box turtle found wandering near the camp. That and the elderberries you gather don’t supply much sustenance but do clean out any remains of the world you left behind.
On the third day you find a decent sized pond and pluck a few sunfish out, careful to preserve your precious line and hooks, despite the snag filled bottom of the woodland water.
The next morning, now weakened, the four older boys set out with bows to find meat, certain that their senses had now been sharpened enough by hunger.
Being the youngest, you are left to guard the gear and continue fishing.
“Don’t fuck up,” you’re told.
Hungry enough to eat grass, you imagine all the fish you could catch, cook and eat before they got back. Meat would be better though. You decide you will eat most of the fish you catch and strategically leave enough to bargain with for any game they manage to bring back.
And to prove you didn’t fuck up.
It’s eerily quiet. Hot. Cicadas buzz. Everyone’s gone. You try to ignore your cramping stomach and your weird, lightheaded thoughts. Morning turns to midday, nothing but sunfish efficiently cleaning your bait off the hook. The worms are onto you too and getting harder to find. You consider eating them.
You throw the baited hook out again. Finally, a decent cast, right where you envisioned it going. Holding the four-foot-long sapling with both hands, line wrapped securely to its notched end, you wait as it sinks. Gently jerk the line now and then, picture the worm bouncing through the murky water and algae that you must clean off every time you pull the line in.
There’s a tug, not that infernal nibbling of sunfish. Damn, it feels big. You increase the tension on the line, and then, concerned by the pull, grab the bare line with your hands, your loyalty torn between the possibility of real food – a big ass bass, maybe, and breaking the precious line.
Shit! It takes everything you have to slowly pull the fish towards you, keeping just enough tension between you and it. C’mon, c’mon. You begin to wonder; tire, log? But you can feel the line jerk now and then. It’s alive.
Forearms knotting, whatever it is must be getting close to breaking the water.
Then it does.
The Navy pilot’s manual did not provide a strategy for this. It happened quickly. Despite that, it unfolds slowly in your mind as you lie paralyzed on your back in some sort of oily gray phlegm-sludge. The heat and stench of decomposing fish and algae is disabling, reaching into every cell. You feel the beast move, its heartbeat a drum pounding through the sickly throbbing stomach wall encasing you.
Your barely adolescent mind can’t wrap around what’s happening, yet it’s flexible enough to allow for many possibilities. As suggested by the counselor at school, you picture yourself going through a mental checklist before getting that “overwhelmed feeling.”
What was that story, Moby Dick? Were you Jonah? Could you dare to hope to be regurgitated? You are dying – these are your last rabid thoughts You are already dead, and this is the hell you’re assigned to for skipping school and shooting that toad last summer with a BB gun, even though you immediately regretted it more than anything else and then were even more sickened when you thought about the years of suppressed rage which had led you to do such a thing.
- Hunger has driven you completely out of your mind.
It’s a bad, bad dream; you’ll wake up.
- You fucked up after all.
The outstretched beak of the pond-sized alligator snapping turtle swallowed you without the need to chop you in half, which it easily could have done. You remember the goofy feeling inside when you were sucked past that absurd giant worm-tongue, a hundred times the girth of the biggest night crawler you pulled out of the dirt that morning, but the exact same see-through intestinal red and gray. You remember seeing your knife lying on the muddy bank of the lake, then the finality of the broiler hiss as the jaws snapped shut.
No light. You pass through the narrowing esophagus, into the pit-stop stomach. There you can feel the nauseating ripple moving you like a mucus conveyor belt toward an even more lightless entrance to the bowels.
- You could pray, but your fragmented upbringing has not designated a particular deity. Pray to all of them, then? Will consider.
The older boys will return, see the situation, and rescue you. Taking account of the lake-sized mass of the beast that swallowed you, not likely.
- Your dad will miraculously show up, drunk of course, yet will somehow rescue you. This is the most unlikely possibility, but you still give it consideration. You have nothing but time.
You can bite, claw, and chew your way out. But you can’t move.
- Paralyzed, all you can do is give up struggling and try to make the best of the experience any way you can.
You are somehow indigestible for the omnivore, and it spits you back out. Yeah, right.
- Once you pass out the other end, you will be a hero incapable of fucking up, because obviously, there are no rules.
Born in Pewee Valley, Kentucky, Doug Bootes teaches creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM. His work has appeared in Poetry Northwest, On the Run Contemporary Flash Fiction, World Literature Today, Runestone Literary Journal and others.