… while at heart an old-fashioned psychodrama, Lehmann-Haupt's novel also has a relentless determinism. Even the most protective parent couldn't stave off its cataclysmic finale.
The New York Times
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's novel is at once a fantasy, a barbed portrait of boyhood in the dawning of the Eisenhower era, and a no-holds-barred story of terror of the sort that won him praise for his previous novel, A Crooked Man.
Jerry Muller has been a regular at Camp Seneca for years. Now that he's a teenager and counselor, things don't seem quite right at his traditional summer haunt. As Jerry plunges into the mysteries around him, he finds himself growing up fast -- maybe too fast.
He's attracted to T.J., a pretty girl who might have a boyfriend but who flirts anyway, and he's shocked by the truth about his friend Oz, who's more interested in Jerry than in the likes of T.J. He sees something is strangely amiss with the husband and wife who own the camp. But above all, he's scared of the cruel game masterminded by Buck.
Of Seneca ancestry, Buck is a sinister, bigger-than-life expert on Indian lore. He is also an organizer of scary games who may just possibly be a psychopath and a killer, and in whose hands the camp's make-believe, designed to scare the kids, becomes first a savage and brutal test of strength, then, by small steps, genuinely dangerous.
As Jerry unravels the mysteries surrounding the ordinary-looking camp, he struggles to understand how "the Forbidden Woods," which have always been off-limits to campers as a kind of game and dare, have somehow become genuinely frightening -- all the more reason to discover the secrets that lie behind Camp Seneca's facade.
The story reaches its climax in a shocking scene that neither Jerry nor the reader is likely to forget. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's new novel is a wicked, suspenseful, and deeply original tale.
… while at heart an old-fashioned psychodrama, Lehmann-Haupt's novel also has a relentless determinism. Even the most protective parent couldn't stave off its cataclysmic finale.
When 17-year-old Jerry Muller returns to Camp Seneca as a junior counselor in Lehmann-Haupt's entertaining new novel of summertime suspense, he finds he's in for more than the Pennsylvania camp's typical "controlled chaos." This year (the summer of 1952), Jerry has brought along his nine-year-old half-brother, Peter, and an excess of psychological baggage from his divorced parents, a single, alcoholic mother and his remarried father. Jerry hopes to show Peter a good time-and have a good time himself with a pretty new girl named T.J.-but camp owner Woody Wentworth's "character building exercises" take on a sinister tone. Woody's campfire tales leave children in tears; the annual Snipe Hunt (an armed bird-bagging contest) turns survivalist; and the atmosphere grows "savage, like they're preparing for war." More disturbing is the adult administrator, Buck Silverstone, aka Redclaw, who runs the Indian program and has some unorthodox activities planned. The question is not if Redclaw will go off the deep end, but when he does, how gory will it be and how many campers will he take with him? Lehmann-Haupt (A Crooked Man) builds suspense and delivers the expected cataclysmic conclusion to this scary campfire tale. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
It's 1952, McCarthyism is in full swing, the nation likes Ike, and 17-year-old Jerry Muller is heading off to summer camp with his young half-brother, Peter, in tow. Camp Seneca, where Jerry is a junior counselor, seems to have it all: acres of woodlands, sports and war games, songfests, nature crafts, practical jokers, bedwetters, and a cute nurse's assistant. But this particular summer also has the mystical Buck Silverstone, a.k.a. Redclaw, a man in charge of imparting Native American wisdom and culture to the campers. Jerry immediately senses something amiss with Mr. Silverstone and the power he seems to wield, but he is plagued by his own troubles with Peter, their distant father, and his alcoholic mother-not to mention a slow-to-mend fracture suffered while skiing last winter and sexual advances from camp staff of both genders. Lehmann-Haupt (A Crooked Man) enhances these complex and promising circumstances with deftly handled action sequences. Unfortunately, Jerry's particularly egocentric first-person perspective hampers the narrative momentum. Recommended for larger public libraries.-Nancy McNicol, Ora Mason Branch Lib., West Haven, CT Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Camp counselors run amuck in Lehmann-Haupt's chilling second novel (following A Crooked Man, 1995), set in a rustic 1950s Pennsylvania boys' camp. This nicely handled thriller is narrated by 17-year-old Jerry Muller, the product of divorced parents, who returns to his beloved Camp Seneca as a junior counselor in the summer of 1952. Jerry takes with him his eager, impressionable nine-year-old half-brother, Peter, whom he must take care of in order to show his father and new stepmother how responsible he is. Unnerving changes have occurred at the camp, however, involving the arrival of Native American Buck Silverstone, aka Redclaw, who has been given free reign by the camp owners to scare the kids. (He begins by telling a campfire ghost story about a mad cook of a lodge in nearby Lake Pymatuning who wields a meat cleaver.) Buck claims the camp land is actually Seneca land, haunted by ghosts buried there, and subscribes to a hybrid religion embracing torture and mutilation. In the camp's spirit of building character, Buck instigates several nasty scares, some of them turning violent. Jerry, who is still on crutches after breaking a leg in a skiing accident, acts as a kind of wary observer, and writes his reservations about the camp to his young German stepmother, Karla. Additional tension stems from issues related to class (Jerry is wealthy and educated, while the majority of campers are working class) and sex (Jerry's male friend makes unwelcome advances). The requisite blood-fest finale notwithstanding, a polished work of suspense.
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Read an Excerpt
The Mad Cook of PymatuningA Novel
By Christophe Lehmann-haupt
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2005 Christophe Lehmann-haupt
All right reserved.
The station wagon that had met our train bounced along the dirt road that led to the entrance of Camp Seneca, raising enough dust to make me feel I was riding a stagecoach into some earlier time in history. Adam Lister was driving, despite nearsightedness that required what looked like a pair of thick camera lenses. Because of a remote manner that was partly the result of this handicap, we called him "mister." Mr. Lister.
"Can I go swimming as soon as we get there?" Peter asked, his bright blue eyes sparkling.
"No," I said. "Everything begins with the softball game." I yawned, tired from staying awake most of the night on the train from New York City, a lot of the time answering my little brother's nervous questions.
"Do I have to play?"
"Yes," said Mr. Lister. "Everybody plays."
"You'll have fun," said Buddy Stemmer from the seat behind us. He was a quiet, fourteen-year-old senior camper, so straightforward and reliable that several summers earlier I had coined the nickname Steady Bomber for him. It had stuck. Steady's good looks bordered on prettiness, like what people sometimes said about mine.
"I'm not good at softball," Peter said.
"That doesn't matter," said Bordy Udall from the front passenger seat. He had ridden out with Mr. Lister to meet the train. Bordy was short for Borden, and we sometimes called him Elsie (after the Borden's Dairy cow), but only behind his back. He was the head counselor of the camp and, at six feet six inches and 270 pounds, an offensive lineman for the University of Pittsburgh football team. He had an incongruously high-pitched voice that made Peter smile.
Next to Steady Bomber, Bernie Kaufman -- a small, stoop-shouldered fourteen-year-old who didn't look like a senior camper but was -- sat practicing his long-necked five-string banjo, just as he had tried to do on the train all the way from New York, until the other passengers made him mute his strings by stuffing tissue between them and the fretboard.
"I didn't know you had a brother, Muller," Mr. Lister said.
"Jerry's actually my half brother," Peter said.
"We have the same father," I said. I lit a cigarette on a new lighter I had been given as a high school graduation gift, and inhaled deeply.
"How old are you, Peter?" Bordy asked. He reached back and tousled Peter's nearly white blond hair.
Bordy whistled. "That's old enough to qualify." I think he was covering up his surprise. Peter looked more like seven.
"Qualify for what?" Peter asked with a worried frown.
"For everything," Bordy said.
Peter smiled at Bordy's teasing and looked out the window. The station wagon was passing the old farmhouse that served as a place for the counselors to socialize, and where Woody and Win Wentworth, Camp Seneca's owners, sometimes stayed, especially during the off-season. Gazing at the house, which was built so close to the road that it looked as if it was trying to escape the land it was on, I thought of the sharp taste of the hard cider in the cellar. The Wentworths' old Chrysler Town & Country, with its wood side panels, was parked next to the house.
"This is Peter's first long time away from home," I announced, trying to explain his apparent fearfulness. "Right, buddy?"
"Your brother will take good care of you," Bordy said. "The five weeks will go by like nothing."
"I know," Peter said. "And Woody and Win will be waiting to make me feel right at home."
"Sorry, they won't," Mr. Lister said. "Win's not here yet."
My heart sank. I had sort of a crush on Win, something I probably shared with half the other campers, but which I kept fiercely to myself. "Why isn't she here?" I asked.
Mr. Lister said nothing. He was concentrating nearsightedly on the road in a way that I always found both pitiable and annoying. I was glad Bordy had come along with him to brighten the atmosphere.
"If I like camp, can I stay longer?" Peter asked bravely.
"Not possible," I said. "Ten days after boys' camp ends, girls' camp begins." I felt really bad about Win's not being there. Not only did I have a crush on her, but her calming presence was essential to what I loved about Camp Seneca, and this summer especially I was counting on her influence.
Peter tapped one of the crutches I was holding upright. "How are you going to play softball, Jerry?"
"If I use just one crutch, I can pitch."
"Where did you say you broke it?" Bordy asked.
"Stowe, Vermont," I said. "The snow was wet. I caught an edge."
"No, I meant which bone?"
"Oh. The tibia. The big one below the knee."
"I know where the tibia is," Bordy said lightly. Blue smoke from my cigarette drifted in the air.
"Will the Indians be playing softball too?" Peter asked.
"I told you: there aren't really any Indians," I said. "Only one, Chief Wahoo, and he's just pretend."
"This year we got a real one," Mr. Lister said abstractly, still concentrating on the road.
"What about Chief Wahoo?" I exclaimed.
"Gone," Lister said. Everyone fell silent, apparently waiting for him to explain, but he said nothing more. The only sound for a few seconds was the tinkle of Bernie's banjo.
"If they never had a real Indian before, why is it called Camp Seneca?" Peter finally asked. "Who named it that?"
"The owners," Bordy said. "Indians are a way of learning about our history. And they teach us about nature."
"Oh," Peter said. "That's neat."
Looking back nearly a lifetime later, I realize now that I had an instant foreboding of how truly horrific that summer of 1952 would be. From the moment we arrived, Camp Seneca just didn't seem the same as it had been in previous summers, partly because of Win's absence, partly because of other disturbing changes.
But I guess I fought not to recognize what I was feeling because I wanted so much for this summer to be successful. What it came down to was that I wanted my brother, Peter, to have the best possible time he could. Partly for his sake, of course, but more because, in truth, I had an ulterior motive: I figured that the better the time Peter had at camp, the more it would impress my father that Peter and I could get along well together, and that I could be a great older brother. Peter had always seemed to like having me around, but I wanted to build on that now. I hoped that Dad would take note, and would ask me to move in with him and his wife, Karla, and, of course, Peter. It was something I really wanted. Even though I was going off to college in the fall, I needed a comfortable place to come home to on vacation, a place where I could have some privacy. And I figured there might be a room for me in the new house in Connecticut Dad had somehow managed to buy despite his always complaining about the meager money he made on his small rare-book business.
More important though, I just had to get away from my mother's small two-room apartment in the Bronx, where things had gotten too depressing.
As we approached the entrance to Seneca, I flashed back to the night before I left for camp, when I had come home and found my mother drunk again. I don't want that to happen anymore, I thought. I don't even want to think about that evening.
But despite my high hopes for the summer, I guess I sensed trouble the moment the station wagon turned into the camp's main entrance. I looked at the two tall totem poles that framed the gate; their cheerful colors and grotesque carved faces suddenly struck me as being at odds with each other, just like my feelings at that moment. The camp also looked seedier somehow than I remembered it. I noticed right away that a couple of the rails had fallen off the fence that surrounded the riding ring to our right.
Beyond the ring, some kind of slimy-looking green scum floated on the surface of the camp's small lake, though its dock and diving float gleamed with fresh white paint and the two red canoes and assorted water wings on the rack near the narrow dirt beach shone brightly. To the left, where the entrance road curved around to the main grounds, stood two small cabins, one of them used by the Wentworths, the other by whoever was the camp's second in command -- Chief Wahoo during previous summers -- and beyond them, the mess hall. It struck me now how drab the buildings looked, and how much smaller, even shrunken, the campgrounds seemed.
The wagon lurched to a stop at the outermost of the two cabins. In front of it stood Woody, surrounded by the camp's staff, a few of whom I recognized, and Chunky, the camp's big black mutt, who looked like a cross between a black Lab and something considerably wider. To the right of Woody stood Nora Laird, a pretty redheaded woman who was the camp's nurse. On his other side towered a tall, unusual-looking man with his silver-and-black hair in a ponytail, wearing a fringed buckskin suit decorated with beadwork. I had never seen him before. I guessed he was the real Indian Mr. Lister had referred to, Chief Wahoo's so-called replacement.
After climbing out of the wagon and collecting our trunk and duffel bags from the back, I couldn't help looking around for Win. Maybe she was somewhere greeting the parents and visitors who were still present. But Mr. Lister was right; she was nowhere to be seen. In summers past she would be standing behind a long table on which plastic lanyards braided by campers the previous summer would be neatly laid out, each bearing a tag with a camper's name and cabin assignment printed on it. Win would hand them out, welcome each camper by name, ask him if he was hungry, and see that he got something to eat if he was.
This summer everything seemed to be different. There was a kind of unease about the place.
In Win's absence, Mr. Lister mounted the steps of the mess hall, blew a whistle, and began rapidly calling out names and cabin assignments from a clipboard he was carrying. Finding it hard to hear him clearly, campers and counselors crowded around him on the steps, jostling for a view of his clipboard. Then, in the midst of this turmoil, Early McAdams, a wiry Southerner who, like me, was a junior counselor, came through the door behind Mr. Lister and grabbed his arm, trying to get his own view of the clipboard. Lister, annoyed, tried to elbow him aside. McAdams, who normally kept his hot temper in rein, suddenly whacked Lister's head with his open right hand. Lister's glasses flew off and he began flailing at Mac blindly, as the children around them went flying. Mac stepped back, took aim, and shot a fist at Lister's right eye, catching him squarely. Blood ran down his cheek and he covered it with both hands, dropping the clipboard. Bordy charged up the steps, threw his arms around Mac's shoulders, and pushed him away. Nurse Laird led the bleeding Lister inside the mess hall, to the infirmary. The children who had fallen down were brushed off and comforted, and an uneasy order was restored, with Bordy filling in for Lister, calling out the cabin assignments.
This incident left me breathless and upset. Mac had always struck me as slightly dangerous, but I had never seen him lose it so completely before. But since Peter had stayed out of the fray and didn't seem overly upset by the incident, I tried to calm myself down so I could get us settled into the camp's routine. After waiting our turn, I learned from Bordy that both Peter and I were assigned to cabin one, the first of the nine cabins along Cabin Row, seven of them containing about ten campers each. Our senior counselor was Len Lawrence, a big, warmhearted guy who kept his scalp so closely shaved that it shone. I was the junior counselor in the cabin, and Steady Bomber was the senior camper. The three of us would make a good team. And because Len was also the assistant head counselor and would be given all the responsibilities connected with that position, I would be left more or less in charge of the cabin, a big job for someone just turned seventeen. A sense of excitement began to overwhelm my dismay.
After all, I reminded myself, deep down I loved Seneca and thought that its slightly wacky philosophy of surprising the campers with unexpected challenges made it something special, even unique. I was intrigued with Woody's high sense of drama: his drive to create unusual situations that only he could dream up. He believed that the sometimes scary twists he put on routine camp activities were good for the children; that by either meeting or failing his challenges they got to know themselves better and became more equipped to face real life. I thought this testing would be perfect for Peter, particularly as our dad wanted Camp Seneca to "toughen him up a little," as he liked to put it.
Of course, I also loved the camp for giving me in Win Wentworth and Chief Wahoo an alternative family, something I seemed to want a lot. I knew that this need had come from my parents splitting up six years ago, with my having to go live with my mother, who had remained single and developed her drinking problem, while my father, who had gotten remarried (to the woman he had had Peter with three years earlier), spent most of the rare time I saw him lecturing me about standing up for myself and becoming more independent. But I didn't understand the roots of my feelings, and it would take me a long time to see what was really going on.
Despite his silly name, Chief Wahoo was smart and sensitive, a Jewish guy from Cleveland who was a public school administrator of some kind and knew a lot about literature. Over the summers, he and Win had come to feel a little like parents to me, and they were accepting and even admiring of me. Now I was going to have to get along without him.
But there was one thing to be happy about this summer: I was looking forward to having Tommy Osborne around. He was a classmate at my boarding school I had managed to recruit as another junior counselor. Woody was always urging us to look for good people to bring to Seneca, and I thought that Oz, because of his athletic, musical, and acting abilities, and especially his interest in Indian lore, would be absolutely perfect. I was amazed when he accepted my invitation, as he was out of my social league at school, and Seneca was the very opposite of the kind of elite place I imagined he probably preferred, like one of those fancy camps up in Maine. But then again, he struck me as being very self-assured and politically astute -- everything I wasn't -- and I guess he wanted to test himself in a different social setting. And Seneca, which drew its seventy-odd eight-to-fourteen-year-old campers from lower-middle- and working-class families in the Pittsburgh area (along with a smattering from Virginia, where Woody and Win had gone to college), would certainly provide Oz with that.
If I had only known how wrong I was.
As Peter and I hauled our luggage down to our cabin, I began to look around for Oz. I was sure he was here already; his family was rich and he had arranged to fly to Pittsburgh and catch a ride up here with the Wentworths or one of the counselors who also lived there. He was probably playing softball already.
Like everything at Seneca, the opening-day softball game was controlled chaos. It was supposed to throw everybody together after they arrived, including the odd parent and visitor and the few women at the camp, who would also play: Nurse Laird and whoever was her assistant this summer; Eve and Sukie, the kitchen help; and of course Win, so important to life at the camp. Aside from being warm and comforting where Woody was a little remote, Win seemed to restrain him from going too far with his games and not-always-so-funny tricks.
The game was played under the most difficult conditions. The diamond was laid out at the lower end of a downward-sloping, rectangular meadow about the size of a football field, with turf that was so uneven that the ball would rarely bounce predictably. Right field was shortened by the cabins housing the latrine -- called the Kybo (for Keep your bowels open) and the communal shower, the last of the nine cabins that edged the field. Behind them was a dark and gloomy forest, dense with undergrowth, considered off-limits because the camp property didn't extend that far. Supposedly it belonged to a neighboring farmer who didn't want us trespassing there, not that anyone would want to. We called this the Forbidden Woods.
Batters whose balls hit either the Kybo or the shower house could not advance beyond first base. If you hit the ball over these buildings and into the underbrush, you were automatically out. No one would dream of looking for the ball in that thicket, not even in the brightest daylight. Further complicating the game was a handicap imposed on all the grown-ups -- or the men, at least -- which required them to bat from the wrong side, so that anyone right-handed had to swing lefty, and the other way around.
Despite all these obstacles, the game was taken very seriously. It might look disorganized, what with players stopping to greet new arrivals, or visitors leaving, or the action slowing at times to let the smaller campers take extra balls and strikes, and no one keeping track of the batting order or even the number of outs. Yet beneath the game's chaotic surface, important individual contests were going on, little games within the game to determine who would be the leaders among the counselors and older campers that summer. The stated point of the game was to mix everyone together smoothly, but what was really at stake was the children's allegiance to the staff.
The game was under way when Peter and I got to the field. Everyone seemed to be participating except Bernie Kaufman, who was leaning against the side of the backstop, practicing his banjo. Since I could do it on one crutch, I offered to take over as pitcher, the position I normally played, and the one thing I could do despite my handicap. Peter joined a group of half a dozen eight- and nine-year-olds who were backing up the catcher.
A couple of the counselors, bald Len Lawrence and big Bordy, football teammates at Pitt, were already in a contest to see who could hit the highest pop fly. In contrast to their fooling around, Jeff Small, the camp's maintenance man, tried hard to get a hit, though as usual he struck out on three awkward swings. As always this surprised me, since Jeff somehow looked like an athlete despite his lanky frame and his salt-and-pepper goatee. In obvious disgust with Jeff's ineptness, Early McAdams -- who was easily the camp's best athlete, and very popular among the campers despite his hot temper and the fact that he was only a junior counselor, like me -- swung gracefully and hit a soft line drive just over the heads of the infielders. He seemed unperturbed by his earlier fistfight with Lister.
Following Mac, a pretty girl I had never seen before came up to bat. She was tall and long-limbed, with yellow hair that she wore in a ponytail, and she had a sharp-featured face with green eyes that gave her a slightly Asian look. When Mac yelled from first base, "Come on, T.J. Hit one, girl!" I guessed that she was the girlfriend he had always talked about bringing to camp. On my first pitch she poked a blooper that fell just beyond the reach of two converging outfielders. Watching her run gracefully to first base, I couldn't help thinking she was even prettier than Mac had boasted, and that her presence was one of the few positive new things about camp this summer, even if she did belong to him.
"Nice hit," I called to her as she took her lead off first base. In response she gave me a shy smile.
Next up was my schoolmate, Tommy Osborne.
"Hey ho, Jerry Muller!" he cried out to me as he stepped to the left of the plate. He had on cutoff jeans and a bright red T-shirt and a new baseball cap with the words "Camp Seneca" stitched in script above the bill. He looked shiny and expensive, and it worried me a little that his preppyness might not go over so well with the mostly working-class counselors at Seneca. But he was a star at our school and I was eager for the camp to see his talents.
"Great to see ya, Oz," I shouted back. "But you're a rightie, so you gotta bat left-handed. That's the rule."
"If you say so." He moved to the other side of the plate, adjusted his glasses, and hit my second pitch to right field, high over the latrine, and into the Forbidden Woods.
"You're out! You're out!" everybody cried, impressed with the length of the drive yet peeved by his ignorance of the rules. It made no difference, though, since nobody was keeping an exact score. The important thing was that Oz had announced his presence.
As always, when the sun got lower and the air began to cool, we broke for supper. Normally this was an Indian-style feast of corn and squash and nuts and berries with baked fish -- or even rabbit for those who could stomach it -- all cooked over a stone grill deep in the forest below us called the Big Woods, by the campfire site. But with Win and Chief Wahoo missing, Woody switched the feast to one of his movable barbecues, a portable grill that he had designed for just such occasions.
"Are you learning the softball rules now?" I said to Oz as he, Peter, and I got in line for our hot dogs and potato salad.
He lifted his Seneca cap and ran his right hand through his ash blond hair and pursed his lips with a little twitch of amusement. "I don't get it," he said, looking off toward the Forbidden Woods. "Why not at least try to find the balls hit in there?"
"Too much trouble," I said. "Besides, it's off-limits, not part of the camp property."
"How was the trip out here?" I asked.
"You drove up from Pittsburgh with Woody?"
"No. Uh, the bald one."
With nothing more to say, I followed Oz's gaze and looked into the darkening woods. A chill came over me. The lowering sun had highlighted a single large, dead tree deep into the woods that loomed above the newer foliage. Silhouetted against the orange glow of the setting sun, its network of black branches suggested a skeletal hand clutching for the sky. In my three summers at Seneca, I had never noticed it before; maybe it had died since last year. But the sinister sight of it now somehow reflected the changed mood I was sensing about the place.
"Look at that tree," I said to Oz.
He followed my gaze. "What about it?"
"I don't know. I just never noticed it before."
"I think it's depressing," I said. I took a cigarette from a pack in my shirt pocket and lit it with my lighter. I waited for the pleasant wave of light-headedness to come over me.
"You got one of those for me?" a female voice asked from behind me.
I turned around and found Mac's girlfriend standing behind me in the line. She had an arm around Artie McAdams, a yellow-haired boy of eleven or twelve who was Mac's younger brother. I caught the sweet scent of her hair. "You're T.J.," I said.
"That's right," she said.
"I'm Jerry Muller. This is my brother, Peter. He's new at camp." I gave her a cigarette and offered her a light. "We've heard a lot about you."
"Hi, Peter. Who's 'we'?" she asked me, drawing on the flame.
"I mean the camp."
"I hope good stuff."
"Sure." I looked around for Mac but didn't see him. "What's your job going to be?"
"I'm Nurse Laird's assistant. Speaking of which, why the crutches?"
"I broke my leg. The cast just came off."
"How'd you break it?" Artie asked.
"Skiing!" Artie exclaimed. "Where do you do that?"
"At the school I go to."
"My, my," T.J. said. "I never went skiing."
"The school's in Vermont."
"Ain't you the lucky one!" She blew out smoke. "So what were you saying is depressing?"
"That tree. It's kind of scary looking."
"I could go and chop it down," Artie volunteered. "I ain't skeered of it."
"I don't think we need to do that," I said.
T.J. put her hands on Artie's shoulders and squeezed them. "Maybe we can go take a look at it one day during free time." She looked up at me and raised her eyebrows, either mocking me or conveying an invitation. I couldn't tell.
Flustered, I turned back to Oz, but found that he was up by the barbecue wagon, being served and talking to Woody. I took Peter's arm and closed the gap.
Woody stopped talking to Oz as I approached. "Hello there, Jerry," he said to me. "This must be Peter. How are you doing, young man?"
"Good," Peter said shyly.
"Where's Win?" I asked.
Woody looked down and busied himself with the hot dogs on the grill. "She'll be here soon enough," he said.
"But not in time to run the campfire, huh?" I said. "Who's gonna summon the spirits?"
Woody gestured at Oz. "I was just telling your schoolmate here: we've made some big changes. We have a new man for the Indian program."
"I think I noticed him when we got here." I took two paper plates and began to load them with food. "What's his name?"
"Buck Silverstone. Going to show us how it's done. Next?"
"Why wasn't he at the softball game?" I handed one of the plates to Peter. "I thought everybody was supposed to play."
"Oh, you'll see. You'll see. Next! There are big surprises in store."
I shredded my cigarette and started to lead Peter after Oz.
"Oh, Osborne," Woody called after us. "Don't forget, I want to talk to you when I get through here."
"What's that about?" I asked Oz when he, Peter, and I had found a place to sit. Other children, including Teddy Wentworth, Woody's seven-year-old son, joined us.
"I'm not sure," he answered. "Something he wants me to do at the campfire."
"Right," I said, trying to hide the mixture of jealousy and pride I felt. I had never been singled out for this kind of attention. Yet it made me feel good to see that Woody was already treating Oz as someone special.
When we were finished eating, most of the counselors and campers went off to their cabins to unpack and get ready for the evening's events. All the parents and visitors had left by now. The shadows were getting longer and the air was a lot cooler. But a few of the campers were still hanging around the softball diamond, playing catch. When they saw me and Peter helping to clean up after the barbecue, they called me over to the diamond and asked me to pitch to them, which I was happy to do. Peter tagged along.
I was about to call an end to the playing because it was getting so late when Oz came jogging up to us, apparently done with his meeting with Woody. He was ready for more softball, and insisted that he and I divide up the dozen or so remaining campers and begin a whole new game. I looked around for an older counselor or two to help supervise things, but the only adults in sight were Eve and Sukie, the two kitchen girls, who, along with T.J., were smoking cigarettes and talking.
So we started playing again, with Oz and me pitching for our respective teams, and we went along for a couple of innings without much happening except for a few infield dribblers. The dark was coming on fast now. Oz suggested that to speed things up we start calling balls and strikes, and he called T.J. over and directed her to umpire from behind the backstop. The game intensified when Oz put his smallest player up to bat, who, having virtually no strike zone for me to pitch to, naturally got on base with a walk. Oz then lofted a hit deep beyond the outfielders and circled the bases behind his miniature batsman.
When our turn at bat came, I followed Oz's lead and sent Peter to the plate. After he walked, I got a hit (although someone had to run for me), and then Steady Bomber smacked a home run. The score was 3 to 2 in our favor. Mischievously, I suggested we call it a night.
I was half kidding, although I knew we really should stop. It was getting so dark we could hardly see. Swallows or bats -- I couldn't tell which -- were swooping in the air above us, and some of the smaller children, still in T-shirts, were shivering from the cool air and starting to complain. In past summers, Win would have come down from her cabin and in her soft but commanding voice suggested that we save the rest of the game for another evening. But Win wasn't around, and Oz wouldn't hear of stopping. We had played only four and a half innings, he said, and the game had to go at least seven to be official. Besides, he had last licks coming. So despite my feeling that the game should end, we went on playing in the deepening darkness.
Pitching harder, I got his side out quickly, and he did the same to ours. It was now too dark to be able to hit the ball solidly, so I placed infielders on either side of me and they were able to run down the few weak grounders Oz's team managed to hit in the next half inning. But we couldn't do any better in our turn up, so it all came down to the bottom of the seventh. This would be it, we all agreed. Even if the score ended up tied.
As Oz's team prepared for its last licks, we could hear people coming out of the cabins and drifting down toward where the campfire would take place. The site was a little ways into the Big Woods, which bordered the lower end of the meadow we were playing on. You entered the Big Woods through a gate made of totem poles that was a smaller version of the camp's main entrance. The softball players were sensing that they might be missing out on something, and little Teddy Wentworth even began to whimper that he didn't want to play anymore. To cheer him up, Oz sent him to bat out of turn, which wasn't such a sacrifice since Teddy was so hard to see in the dark. Just as Oz hoped, I walked him on four pitches.
Now Oz himself came up. I threw the first pitch as hard as I could, but I heard a thunk at home plate and a soft whizzing past my right ear. He was pounding toward first base, chortling and urging little Teddy to run. His team was cheering wildly.
As the runners began to circle the bases, I figured I'd better head in the direction that the ball had been hit and, when the outfielder could get it to me, carry it back to home plate myself without risking a throw to Steady. I switched my crutch from my left arm to my right and started out toward second base. By first planting the rubber tip way out in front of me and then hopping forward on my left leg, I could cover ground at a surprising speed.
I didn't have to travel far. Just past second, Peter came out of the dark and handed me the ball. I switched it to my left hand and took off hopping and swinging, hoping that I could beat Teddy and Oz to home.
I saw that it was going to work. I could hear Oz nearing third base, but I realized he couldn't move any faster than little Teddy in front of him, so I knew I still had plenty of time. I would be waiting at home when Teddy got there. I would tag him out and either force Oz back to third or tag him out too.
But again Oz found a way to one-up me. When the slab of home plate came into view, I saw that I was moving too fast to stop myself in time. That would have been okay if Teddy and Oz had been moving at the speed I'd expected them to. I would have overrun the base path, turned around, and hopped back in time to tag Teddy out. But as I began to brake myself I became aware of a single set of pounding footsteps and low laughter just to my right. Oz had picked Teddy up in his arms and was carrying him along at top speed.
Then, just as I reached the baseline, I got my legs tangled and went flying. An instant later I felt an explosion of pain and heard a loud ringing in my head; suddenly I was lying on my back.
As the ringing faded, I began to hear the sound of crying. I rolled painfully onto my stomach. Peter ran up and knelt beside me. "Are you okay?" he asked.
Except for my aching head and shoulder, nothing seemed to be seriously wrong with me. "I think so." I looked up and even in the dark I could see the outline of Oz crawling on all fours toward the sound of crying. T.J. was moving too, running and then throwing herself onto her knees. I couldn't see little Teddy, but I was sure it was he who was in tears. I lay there for a moment, wondering if I had tripped on something, and considering the very real possibility that Oz and I and Peter would be heading home tomorrow.
I sat up and felt around for my crutch, found it close by, and struggled to my feet. Oz and T.J. were kneeling together in the grass. I was about to join them when Mr. Lister appeared out of the dark. A white gauze patch covered his right eye, and he was clearly annoyed. "It's campfire time now," he said coolly. "Go get your remaining campers from the cabin and take them to the campfire area."
"Sorry, Mr. Lister, but we've had an accident here," I said. "A child is hurt."
He looked in the direction of Oz and T.J. "The nurse's assistant can take care of it. It's not your worry."
"I feel it is," I shot back.
"The director wants us all at the campfire as soon as possible," Mr. Lister barked. "Get moving."
I took a step, but in the direction of Oz and T.J. "It's okay," she said. "Teddy's okay, I think. Just a couple of bruises. You fellas go ahead. I'll get him to the infirmary and we'll look him over. Go on ahead to the campfire."
"You sure?" I asked.
"For certain," T.J. said.
I turned away and Oz fell in step with me and the campers as we headed for Cabin Row. "You win," he said, nudging me.
"What do you mean?" I asked, lighting a cigarette.
"Final score three to two, so you win."
"Oh, right." As if it mattered.
He punched me lightly on the shoulder. "I'll get you next time."
When we got to the campfire site, it was still pitch-dark; the campfire had not yet been lit. What was Mr. Lister's hurry? I wondered as we were guided by a flashlight beam to our places. I steered Peter and the three younger campers I had fetched from my cabin to an empty spot at the inner edge of the circle, a space that gave me room to sit with my bad leg stretched out and to lay my crutches beside it.
The flashlight beam bounced around the circle, lighting up one expectant face after another, then went out. No one spoke above a whisper. Peter sat close to me and grasped my right hand with both of his. I could feel the cathedral of tall pines overhead and smell the needles. It was a spot I had always loved, especially at night, when it made me feel as if I were in a vaulted cocoon and the best of the camp's spirits were watching over and protecting us.
A spotlight attached to a tree overhead came on and lit a small area about six feet to our right, where the circle of campers was broken by a passageway. Through this walked the tall man I had seen standing next to Woody when we first arrived, the man he called Buck Silverstone. He was now dressed in leggings, a loincloth, a leather vest, and a feathered headdress. The exposed parts of his lean, muscular body glistened in the spotlight as if oiled. His nose jutted out from a surface of intersecting planes, his eyes were dark shadows. As he lifted a feathered pipe to his mouth, Steady Bomber stepped out of the dark, wearing only a loincloth. He struck a match against a stone in his hand and held it to the bowl of the pipe. Silverstone drew on it, and exhaled a cloud of smoke. He handed the pipe back to Steady and lifted his arms, extending them above his head and spreading his fingers. From the angle I was watching him, he seemed to tower way above us.
"Oh, Great Spirit of Fire, we come in peace." His voice was deep and resonant. "Show us that you hear my words! Grant us now the warmth of your light."
An explosion, loud like a cherry bomb, came from somewhere high off to our left, causing Peter to flinch in my lap and the children all around me to squeal. I looked up and saw a ball of fire begin to blaze like a giant firefly where the explosion had sounded. It burned in place for an instant, then began to hurtle down at us with a loud roar. Voices buzzed as it approached, and from somewhere outside the ring of campers Chunky began to bark. When the ball of fire hit the woodpile, a thunderclap sounded, a wave of heat washed over us, and a wall of flames leaped high in the air. The blaze revealed a circle of astonished faces.
I began to move myself and the children back from the fire, thinking that where we were sitting would be too hot. But the flames died quickly, leaving a smoldering campfire that looked as if it had been burning for hours. You could have roasted marshmallows on it right then. I didn't understand how he made that happen, but it sure was impressive compared to the bonfires of previous summers. Chunky expressed his reaction by continuing to bark hysterically.
The spotlight came on and once more lit up the area where Silverstone was standing, just off to our right. He took the peace pipe again from Steady and raised it with both hands toward the fire. "Great Spirit, Tarachiawagon," he intoned, "Master of Life, Holder of the Heavens, who decides the fate of battles, the clemency of the seasons, the fruitfulness of the crops, and the success of the chase: we offer you brave young Buddy Stemmer, the first of our young men to sit in vigil the whole night through and greet the dawning. By spending the night alone with only a blanket and false-face mask to cover him, and tending a fire lit without matches, he has come to know his animal helper, the Great Bear. Accept him, O Great Spirit, into the Society of Faces."
Steady stepped into the circle of light. Silverstone turned to him and touched him on his forehead with the pipe. Steady stood still a few moments, and then retreated back into the dark. A breath of cool night air swept over the audience and fanned the flames of the campfire for a moment.
"What's a Society of Faces?" Peter piped up in a frightened voice.
"Silence!" Silverstone roared, and Peter flinched against my side.
"Sorr-eee," I whispered, squeezing Peter's shoulder and wondering when Steady had sat through this so-called all-night vigil by a fire lit without matches. After all, hadn't he been with us coming from the train station this afternoon?
"And silence the dog, please," Silverstone called over to his right. In response, someone got up and led Chunky away.
"Campers," Silverstone chanted, remaining still, as if at attention. "Let me tell you who I am. My white man's name is Buck Silverstone. You will call me Buck. You will know me as the man running Camp Seneca's Indian program. You will think of me as the leader of a game we are playing."
His body relaxed and he began to pace back and forth as if in deep thought. Low whispering came from members of the audience here and there around the fire. "But my name is not really Buck Silverstone and I am not playing a game. I am actually a member of the Seneca tribe, and a descendent of warriors and prophets. My true name is Redclaw. I am of the Wolf clan." He began to pace again, toward us and away from us. "Redclaw, a warrior's name. Although I am working for Mr. Wentworth and helping him to run his camp, my mission is to redeem this land that once belonged to my ancestors, this very land that the camp now occupies."
Is he kidding? I wondered.
He stopped pacing and his head swung back and forth. I could feel his eyes on us. He raised his voice. "For though this place was named Camp Seneca in the spirit of make-believe, the land it is on was, in fact, once part of the Five Nations, the Iroquois." In a lower voice he added, "The white man took it for himself."
Peter leaned his head closer and whispered to me. "Is he right?"
"I don't know," I said. "Listen."
"You campers will help me in this mission. In the next weeks you will learn something of Seneca ways, and the older among you will do as Buddy Stemmer has done. You will be initiated through Seneca ritual."
His body sagged imperceptibly. "That is all I have to say to you now. Let us commune with the spirits as I leave you." He turned to face the fire again, with his right hand removed something from a pocket of his vest, and raised the hand in the air. "Partake of this sacred tobacco, O mighty Shagodyoweh, who live on the rim of the Earth, who stand towering there, who travel everywhere on the Earth caring for the People."
With his raised hand he tossed something into the fire. In response it flared up again in a roar of flames. All of us held our breaths and leaned back from the heat. Then, abruptly, the fire died down again, and we looked back to where Redclaw had been standing. He was gone.
"Wow!" said Peter amid a general chorus of gasps and murmurings. "Are...are we really on Indian land?"
"No, Peter, it's just a game, to make what we do here seem more realistic." I hope.
"Really?" he asked nervously.
"Guaranteed." I put my hand on his head and turned it so that I could see his face. "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine," he said brightly. "I'm not even homesick."
"That's good. You'll be sure to tell me if you are."
"I promise. When do you think Mom will write?"
"I bet we get a letter tomorrow."
"I happen to know she wrote us even before she and Dad left for Europe."
He smiled, but then his face clouded over. "Boy, that Buck guy is something."
"Don't worry about him," I said with all the assurance I could muster.
But in truth he was a little scary; he had put on a very impressive performance, overdone just enough to let us know it was unreal. It was typical of everything Woody did at Seneca, and part of what made the camp so unusual.
In fact, Silverstone's performance made what I knew was coming next seem anticlimactic. It was time for Woody's traditional opening-night campfire story, and I thought he would have to work especially hard if he were to cast his usual spell.
But then something else broke the mood of Buck Silverstone's performance. When the spotlight came back on, Mr. Lister was approaching me. He was carrying a picnic basket.
"Is little Teddy okay?" I asked.
He stooped next to me. "The boy's arm is broken, but he's basically all right. Woody wants to talk to you and Osborne. You're to report to the director's office first thing after breakfast."
"Okay," I said, grasping my crutches and struggling to my feet. "We'll be there." Oh, my God! Are we in trouble! I took a cigarette out.
"No smoking here," Mr. Lister said and began to move away.
"What's the picnic basket for?" I asked him.
"It's a morning snack for the campers who are sleeping in the tree house tonight."
"Do you want me to deliver it?" I asked, disliking myself for trying to be ingratiating.
"That's okay. Look after your kids."
I sat down and the spotlight went out again. Five or six more eight- and nine-year-olds, seeing the group around me, came and sat next to us. Shadows moved just beyond the dim firelight. A figure I recognized as Woody stepped out of the dark and seated himself close to the fire, where Silverstone had been. Chunky, apparently calmed, followed and stretched out next to him. The flickering flames reflected in Woody's eyeglasses.
"You campers on the other side of the fire, come closer," Woody said. Shadows moved in the dark beyond the fire, and the group gathered around Woody. I put my arm around Peter, knowing that what was about to happen would be scary. Things were beginning to seem back in control again. I looked around to see if Oz had arrived yet, but in the dim light I couldn't find him.
Woody began to speak in a low voice, and the murmuring around the fire quieted. "Once, not so many years ago, at a famous vacation lodge on an island in Lake Pymatuning -- not far from here, as you know -- a strange man came to work in the kitchen. No one knew where he was from, or anything else about his background. No one knew if he had a wife or family, or even where he lived. All anyone knew was that he worked very hard and never spoke a word.
"He was an assistant cook whose main job was meat cutting. He worked at a chopping block in a corner behind the kitchen's main stove. He worked all day with his back to the rest of the kitchen help, cutting up meat with a set of sharp knives and a huge meat cleaver. He was a big, powerful man, maybe six-and-a-half feet tall. But he worked with great delicacy, chopping, cutting, carving, fileting, boning."
Woody mimed these gestures with his right arm above his head. The huge shadow of his arm moved against the backdrop of trees behind him.
"Mornings they would bring him a side of beef, or a whole hog, or a crate full of chickens or ducks, and by quitting time there would be a pile of steaks, hams, filets, hamburgers, chicken breasts, drumsticks, or chops. All neatly piled up and ready to cook or freeze. This man was not too pleasant to look at. He had long, greasy black hair, and a scar that ran from the corner of his left eye across one side of his mouth to his chin. It gave him sort of a snarling look. But he minded his own business and worked the days away, chopping and slicing and sharpening his cutlery."
A coal popped in the fire. I still wondered how it had been made to burn so low so quickly. Peter pressed against me and other children moved closer.
Woody went on: "As time passed, this man worked away quietly. He would be the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night."
Woody was quiet for a moment. Peter whispered, "What's going to happen?" I squeezed him tighter.
"But then an odd thing occurred," Woody went on, his voice a few degrees more tense. "One morning the head cook came in and noticed his assistant working away at his chopping block, cutting up meat. The only trouble was he was cutting up something the head cook hadn't given him."
Murmurs sounded among the campers.
"The head cook was a meticulous, orderly man, a small Oriental person, maybe Chinese. He distinctly recalled that he hadn't supplied the butcher with meat the night before. Yet there the man was, chopping and cutting."
"What could it be?" somebody asked.
Woody raised his right hand for quiet. "The head cook didn't know, but he decided to overlook the mystery. Maybe he had forgotten giving him meat. Or maybe the assistant had somehow found the key to the meat locker, and fetched himself something to work on.
"But the next morning the same thing happened. This time the head cook was sure he hadn't given his assistant any meat to cut up. And he'd kept the key to the meat locker with him for the night. And yet the man was cutting up something big, much bigger than a chicken, though a little smaller than a cow. It was something with very long limbs too."
Woody lowered his voice. "And with hairless skin!"
"Eeuw!" someone near me groaned.
"What does that mean?" Peter whispered. "What was he cutting up?"
"Remember, it's a story," I said.
"Well," said Woody, "the cook decided that his assistant would have to be confronted. He went and stood behind the big man and tapped him on the shoulder." Woody reached out toward the fire and tapped the air.
"But nothing happened. The assistant cook went on chopping away with his big meat cleaver, hacking at the piece of flesh in front of him. So the head cook tapped him harder. This time the man stopped chopping. But he didn't turn around. He just stood there.
"So the head cook poked him in the back a little harder, and he said, 'Excuse me, mister!'"
Woody paused. Then he shouted, "HAH!"
Peter jumped so hard that his head banged my chin. Other children laughed nervously. Someone on the far side of Woody got up and retreated into the dark.
Woody went on. "The assistant cook said, 'Hah!' And then he yelled, 'Aieeeee!' Then suddenly he spun around, and as he did so he raised his cleaver sideways to the level of the head cook's neck. And with a single stroke, he cut off the man's head. The cook fell dead on the spot, of course, and his head went bouncing along the floor.
"Then the assistant cook let out a scream and ran out of the kitchen, waving his meat cleaver over his head."
Peter twisted and looked up at me with a stricken face. "Will they catch him?"
"Just wait," I said.
The night breeze, as if on cue, began to fan the flames harder. Woody raised both his hands, as if trying to calm the wind. "Well, of course someone called the police right away. And a dozen state troopers showed up with dogs as soon as they could get a boat to the island where the lodge was. But the Mad Cook had disappeared. So the police broke up into three parties, each with a dog, and began to search the island. That wasn't going to be easy, because the island was mostly wooded."
Woody stood up and began to walk in place. "They searched and searched, but they couldn't find the Mad Cook anywhere. They figured he had swum to the mainland. So they headed back to their boat, which was a big, fast police launch.
"But just by chance, one of the younger troopers had strayed away from his group. Without a dog."
"Uh-oh," several children moaned.
"He was right in the middle of the island, deep in the trees, and he was lost. He wandered around for a while, and then he suddenly noticed what looked to him like trampled undergrowth." Woody raised his voice a third of an octave. "The trooper saw freshly broken twigs and ferns with their undersides turned up.
"Then he saw a piece of torn cloth hanging from a broken branch. The branch stuck out between two large tree trunks that formed a sort of archway. The young trooper stopped walking." Woody stopped moving and crouched ever so slightly. "He stood stock-still and listened as intently as he could. But he couldn't hear anything except the usual sounds of a forest -- insects chirping, and birds chattering, and wind in the treetops.
"He carefully removed his pistol from its holster and began to walk slowly toward the archway. He couldn't see beyond it, but he kept on walking closer and closer.
"When he got up close, he stopped and listened again. He could hear no unnatural sound.
"He took a step forward. Now he was right next to the trees. He took another step. And another." Woody approached the fire. "He was between the trees and nearly through the arch. He took another step. And then..."
Woody looked off into the distance on the far side of the fire.
"Aaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiii!" a man's voice cried out in the dark somewhere off to the left of us. "Help! Help me! It's the Mad Cook!"
A spotlight came on, more powerful than any that had been lit earlier, and was aimed where the voice was coming from. Bright as day, it revealed Tommy Osborne standing between two big tree trunks that formed an archway just like the one Woody had been describing. Oz was looking back over his shoulder with his mouth wide open in terror. He screamed again, "Aaaaahhhhhh!"
"What's wrong?" yelled Woody in a loud, stagy voice.
Oz turned his face back to us and seemed about to run when a white-sleeved arm reached out from behind one tree trunk and grabbed him. Then a huge figure stepped out. He had long disheveled hair, a greenish yellow face with bulging eyes and a dramatic scar running down one cheek.
The man suddenly raised a meat cleaver over his head and brought it down on Oz's shoulder. A shower of blood sprayed around Oz as he collapsed in a heap at the foot of the tree trunks. The monster roared, "Aaaaarrrrgggggggg!" and raised the meat cleaver again. Children around the campfire stood up and screamed. Peter leaped up and threw himself into my arms.
And then, as he stepped into the full glare of the spotlight, the Mad Cook placed one hand on the top of his head and pulled his hair upward. His features began to stretch out grotesquely. We heard a rubbery popping noise, and suddenly Bordy Udall was standing there with a big grin on his face.
"Joke!" he yelled. "Joke!" He bent down and helped Oz up. Oz smiled and waved and reached under his collar and pulled out what looked like a deflated football bladder that was dripping dark liquid and had soaked his shirt.
The spotlight went out. As my eyes began to adjust again to the dark, I could see the dim outlines of the campers standing still in stunned silence. A few cried out in relief. Those who had started to run away began drifting slowly back.
"Good show," Woody shouted into the dark, clapping his hands. "Great show!"
"So it was all a joke," Peter said, leaning into me with his arms around my neck. He was snuffling back tears.
The night wind was blowing hard now.
"Yes, it was just a trick," I said, hugging him hard, trying both to reassure him and to keep him warm. But not a very entertaining one, I thought, suddenly seeing the whole thing through Peter's eyes. Not a fun story at all for a little kid. More sadistic than funny. Has it always been that way and I never noticed before? I wondered. Or is something really different this year?
Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Excerpted from The Mad Cook of Pymatuning by Christophe Lehmann-haupt Copyright © 2005 by Christophe Lehmann-haupt.
Excerpted by permission.
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