I place my collection of nutshells on the ground in a line as I hover the small rock above one. I try again for the tenth time to crack it open. We arrived back at the camp some time ago after an exhausting and confusing day of learning how to survive. He made me stab that damn tree almost fifty times and I still couldn’t pierce a hole, not as good as his anyway. The only water I was able to pluck from it was a tiny little drip that stopped just as quickly as it began.
The water was a clear indication that I had done something right and it made me very proud of myself but then Thorn reminded me that I couldn’t survive just from a drop of it.
“You need to get stronger,” he said. “Eat as much protein as you can and train.”
I didn’t ask him what ‘train’ meant. I couldn’t face it. He knows how weak I am, how hungry I am, and yet he won’t help me with the nuts. He’s trying to prove a point. As he sits there turning squirrel meat over a fire with a delighted smirk on his face, all I want to do is throw these shells at his skull.
I rock back onto my knees and I wipe my forehead as he lifts the stick higher and swipes a piece of meat from the stick. I swallow enviously as he chews it and makes satisfaction sounds. My stomach growls just watching him.
I use the rock to hit the shell again, over and over. I become desperate. What the hell is wrong with these things? Why won’t they open?
I throw the rock to the ground in frustration and I hold my head in my hands while I pace dramatically in front of him. He chews a little slower, smirking at me through his swallows.
“They’re bastards to open, aren’t they?” he says. “That’s why I and other predators eat meat.”
“Shut up,” I hiss. “Just shut up.”
I close my eyes as I imagine killing something. I watched him butcher that rabbit yesterday and I threw up and that was when it was already dead. I can’t do it. My hands tremble just thinking about it. But he’s right. I’ve eaten meat my whole life. Expensive meat. It was always prepared for me and made into delicious meals that I miss so much right now. How can I want to eat meat without facing the fact that I have to kill it first? It’s hypocritical.
The alternative is eating nuts and fruit for the rest of my life and I can’t even get to the nuts.
“You need to realize what you are, Devon,” Thorn says softly. “I’m higher than anything else on the food chain and I don’t cry about it. It’s just nature, it’s brutal.”
I look down at the delicious-smelling meat on the stick. My mouth starts to water. I fold my arms.
“What if I can’t?” I say.
“Then go home.”
I whimper quietly as I turn and look into the quiet woods. I bite on my nail.
“Hunting isn’t murder,” he says. “You are eating to survive.”
“Don’t you feel something? Don’t you feel bad?”
“Every time. I respect the animals that I kill. The moment you lose that respect is the moment it becomes murder.”
I turn back around. “Why are you out here, Thorn? Why don’t you go home?”
He twists the stick away from the fire slowly and blows on it. “This is my home.”
I take one more look at that meat and my stomach can’t handle it. It growls so loudly that Thorn stares at it.
“Please,” he says. “You’re making me uncomfortable.”
“Fine. You win.”
He smiles. “You’ll let me teach you how to hunt?”
I nod. I’m not entirely sure that I’m okay with it but I agree just so he’ll let me have some food. His plan worked and I try not to think about his satisfaction or smugness as I sit beside him and extract big chunks of meat from the burnt stick. There’s still a lot left. He hardly touched it. I wonder if he would have given it to me anyway.
I place a piece of meat into my mouth and I hate myself for how delicious I find it. It’s heaven on my lips. I am chained to the dead animal hopelessly.
“How is it?” he says.
“Good. I’m that hungry that I don’t care.”
“What did you eat back at home?”
“All kinds of food,” I say. “I had three course meals at dinner. Steak, fish, soups and chicken dishes. Buttered bread rolls and cheese.” I twist the piece of meat in my fingers sadly. “It’s strange how being starved can make you appreciate something different.”
“Well, I can’t help with the fancy dinners but we’ll get around to fish,” he says. “There’s a river to the west, it’s filled with cod. You’ll have to be a little more advanced before I introduce you to spearing.”
I swallow fearfully. “Spearing?”
“It’s where you catch a fish with a spear,” he says. “It takes a lot of patience. First you have to actually make the spear.” He laughs at my nervous expression. “I’ll show you.”
“I can’t tell if you’re actually trying to help me or if you’re scaring me into wanting to go home.”
“Ah, so you figured it out?”
I scowl at him.
“Hurry up and eat. It’ll be dark soon. You’ll need your rest for tomorrow.”
He has this strange obsession of needing me to be asleep before the darkness comes. I’ve been out here in the dark before, alone, and I was fine. Well, not fine, but I made it through the night. I don’t understand why it’s so important to him. What happens at night in these parts of the woods?
I finish the last of the meat and he cocks his head towards the camp, silently telling me to go to sleep.
“Goodnight,” I say.
I surrender to the bed willingly. Even though I didn’t think I was tired, I begin yawning the moment I curl up into the soft fabric of the quilt. I fall asleep moments later.
I wake up, panicked and alert, as I hear the curtain pull across my space. It’s early morning and I rub my eyes as Thorn stands at the bottom of the wooden coffin. I glare at him as he holds something up in his hands.
“What do you think?” he says.
“I think that you’ve woken me up,” I growl.
“Isn’t nice, is it?” He grins and throws some clothes at me.
I catch the small pile of clothing, holding up the small, black shirts, sweaters and thin pants. He also throws some underwear at me.
“What is this?” I say.
“I stole them from a cabin last night. From a group of girls staying at the other side of the woods. There’s a site there that people use for camping. They were distracted playing some stupid games so I snuck in.”
“Ew. You stole strangers’ underwear?” I throw the pile down and shift uncomfortably.
“You take what you can get,” he says. “I got you some better shoes too.” He bends down and lifts the hiking boots from the floor and drops them onto my legs. “There’s thick socks inside them.”
I hold the boots with a large smile. Anything would be better than my ridiculous flats but these are perfect.
“Thank you,” I say.
“That’s not all,” he says sheepishly. He reveals the other thing in his hand and my face drains of life as he places a pack of sanitary towels onto the quilt. “I didn’t have much time so I could only get essentials but these are essential, yes?”
I nod. “Yes.” I clear my throat awkwardly. The pack has holes in it as though it’s been cut with a blade, or sharp teeth. “This is all you got?”
I drop my head back with a frown. “I’d kill for some coffee right now.”
He smiles. “Maybe next time. Get dressed, we’ve got a lot of training to get through today.”
I groan as he turns around and leaves through the curtain, pulling it back across. I look through the open wall at the blue sky. The sun is quite high. It’s not early morning, it’s mid-morning. I slept for a long time, longer than I thought. I didn’t hear a thing. I didn’t hear him leave or come back.
I remove Thorn’s big and heavy clothes and I replace them with clean underwear, a thin black sweater and brown pants that I don’t have to fold around my ankles. I tie the laces of the boots tightly as they are a tad big for my feet but I can tolerate it. The clothing feels tight on me, it feels good.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say I’m dressed for hunting.