To the kids at Camp Lickwood, free time was precious. For a few short hours they were free to do as they pleased instead of a slew of scheduled activities. They spent this time in a variety of ways, from playing in the lake to reading under a tree.
One particular afternoon a group of older boys decided to put together a game of baseball in the overgrown field near the edge of the forest. Because they needed one extra player for a full game, they’d decided to allow a younger boy named Ryan to join them. He had asked many times to join their game, but until today they’d excluded him because he was young.
But now that he was finally allowed to play, he wasn’t sure he’d made the right choice. They’d put him in left field, which he quickly found to be the most boring position in the whole game. He’d been watching everyone else play while he just stood there, with nothing to do but stare at the dandelions scattered throughout the grass. The pitcher wound up and threw the ball for what felt like the millionth time that day. Why wouldn’t this game just end already?
The sun shone in Ryan’s eyes. His cap was supposed to block it out, but as it neared the horizon even that didn’t work. He turned around, facing the forest behind him. That was better, now he wouldn’t need to squint.
That was when he noticed the ferret staring at him from just inside the bushes that lined the perimeter of the camp.
“Hi.” Ryan whispered, “What’s your name?”
He crept a little closer
“My name’s Ryan.”
The ferret turned and ran off into the forest.
“Wait!” said Ryan. He broke into a run, squeezing through the space between two of the bushes.
The ferret, of course, paid him no heed. It just kept running, quickly putting more distance between it and it’s pursuer.
“Come on,” said Ryan, out of breath, “I won’t hurt you.”
The ferret stopped a ways in front of him and looked back. Then, it turned and ran up a tree. Ryan slowed to a walk, stopping at the base of the trunk. The ferret stared down at him from its perch.
Frowning, Ryan just stood there for a moment. Then, he backed up a few paces, ran at the tree, grabbed it around the middle, and tried to shimmy up the trunk. After a whole lot of squirming he managed to get a few feet off the ground. Then his arms gave out and he fell with a startled yelp.
For a moment he sat in the dirt, stunned. Gritting his teeth, he pulled himself to his feet and tried again with the same result.
“Why do you keep doing that?” The ferret said as Ryan dusted himself off a second time.
“Because I want to get to the top.”
“But you can’t. You’re just hurting yourself.”
Ryan didn’t respond, he just threw himself at the tree again. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to play with the ferret anymore, but he couldn’t just let it talk to him like that.
“You humans are so silly.” The ferret said, before it turned away and leapt off the branch and onto another.
“Where are you going?” Said Ryan, “I’m about to try again.”
“Go back to your camp, human.” The ferret said as it scampered away through the treetops.
Ryan stood there a moment, staring at where the ferret had disappeared from sight. He didn’t like the idea of going back to camp, where he would have to sit out in left field and be the last to bat every inning, so he decided to go exploring instead.
For a while he wandered, following rabbit trails and climbing over rocks until he came upon a blackberry bush. Ignoring the thorns, he picked a handful and began to eat them.
Five minutes later he’d eaten his fill and was feeling quite a bit better about his conversation with the ferret. He wandered over to a nearby stump, climbed up on top of it, and began to sing to himself, softly at first, but slowly growing louder until he was nearly screaming at the top of his lungs. Somewhere along the way he began strumming an invisible guitar like he’d seen people do on T.V., and in his mind he saw a large crowd gathered around the stump, cheering him on. By the time he’d finished, the sun had set, leaving only the moon and stars for light.
“Thank you everyone!” Ryan said, bowing.
Only then did he realize that free time was probably over back at camp, and he would soon be missed.
With this in mind, he set off back in the direction from which he had come, (though it was hard to tell in the dark). For two hours he traveled, carefully stepping over roots and trying his best not to fall on the stones. The terrain seemed rougher than before, and the sky was growing darker by the minute. Ryan couldn’t shake the feeling that he might not ever find his way back to camp, but instead wander through the forest until he died of hunger or thirst.
There was something else, too. It seemed to Ryan as if something was hiding in the darkness, watching him, following him, getting ready to strike. The hair stood up on the back of his neck and he stopped in his tracks.
“This can’t be right,” he said, looking around. He hadn’t been here before, he was sure of it. In the darkness, he had lost the path back to camp.
Ryan tried to fight the tears that sprang so easily to his eyes, but could not. As he stood there, crying softly, he heard a voice from above
“Are you lost, little human?”
Ryan started. “Who said that?”
“Look up here,” it called. Ryan looked up to see a huge raven sitting on a branch, staring directly into his eyes.
“What do you want?” Ryan asked, quickly wiping away his tears so that the bird wouldn’t see.
“If I were in your shoes I wouldn’t be so rude.” said the Raven, “You don’t want your only chance at finding your way out of these woods to fly away because you offended them, do you?”
“I don’t need your help, I know exactly where I am!”
“Do you now? Then tell me, little human, where are you?”
Ryan had no answer for this.
“I thought so,” said the Raven. “Since you don’t seem to know, let me tell you. The ground on which you stand belongs to the ravens of the northern pines. Do you know what the word ‘trespassing’ means, small human?”
Ryan nodded, too nervous to speak.
“It means,” said the raven, ignoring him, “We ravens have the right to end you, right here and now. It means we have the right to peck your eyes out, tear the flesh from your bones, and leave nothing but your bare, rotting skeleton behind for the wolves to gnaw. Tell me, small human, why I shouldn’t call the rest of the flock right now, that we may feast upon your carcass?”
“What?” said Ryan, “No… You can’t do that, I haven't done anything. You’re just a big, fat…” He couldn’t think of a suitable insult.
The raven’s gaze pierced him and for a long moment both were silent. Finally the raven said, “Haven't you figured out how it works here? You humans think everything you see belongs to you. You tear down our forests, pollute our rivers and kill us for sport. There was a time when your kind would knock us out of the sky with stones because you thought we were bad luck. But we never did anything to provoke your wrath; we meant you no harm. Humanity is the root of all evil; it was your kind who brought it into our world in the first place.”
Ryan opened his mouth to reply, but the words didn’t come. Fear had silenced him.
The Raven regarded him. “You…” it said after a moment’s contemplation, “are rather small for a human.”
“I’m not that small.” It was all he could do to stop his voice from shaking.
The raven laughed. “But you are. You’re not even big enough to fight off an undersized raccoon. All the better to get rid of you now before you grow big enough to hurt anything more than a fruit fly. Your time has come, Human!”
With that the raven opened its mouth to issue a terrible shriek, a shriek that would reach the ears of his brethren and call them to him, rallying them together that they might take out their fury on the little boy who stood before them.
But in the split second before the raven loosed it’s cry, a stone whizzed silently through the air and struck the bird in the side of the head. There was a terrible crack and an explosion of feathers as it fell to the ground with a broken neck.
Ryan turned to see a man dressed in the pelt of a deer standing there, slingshot in hand.
The man put a finger to his lips and motioned for Ryan to follow, which he did without hesitation. Perhaps this man would help him.
The man moved too quickly, despite Ryans efforts to keep up. He must have realized this too, because he stopped and turned to Ryan.
“Get on my back, I can carry you faster that way,” he said
Ryan hesitated only a moment before climbing onto the man. Without warning, he stood up and began to run faster than Ryan would’ve thought possible. The trees whizzed past, their shadowy forms blurring together.
After just a few minutes, they slowed to a stop. Before them was a little log cabin nestled at the bottom of a hill. The man knelt to allow Ryan to get off. Without a word he walked forward and opened the door and motioned for Ryan to follow.
But this time Ryan was unsure. He knew nothing about this man and he wasn’t quite sure he could trust him. His life had already been threatened once, why should this be any different?
“Why are you helping me?” Ryan asked, holding his ground
“Because you were in trouble.”
There was nothing else for it. Ryan walked into the house with more than a little reluctance.
Once they were inside, the man struck a match and tossed it into a nearby fireplace. The room lit up instantly, revealing two big armchairs facing an ornate coffee table.
“Have a seat,” said the man. Ryan did as he was told, despite his misgivings. The Man walked to the back of the room where a kitchenette stood.
“You like cocoa, don’t you?”
Ryan nodded, and the man reached into a cupboard, pulled out a big pot, and began filling it with water. After a minute of silence, Ryan asked,
“Who are you?”
The man didn’t respond for a moment, then said,
“They call me Jack.” He returned to the table with two steaming mugs of cocoa. He handed one to Ryan, then settled into the other armchair.
Ryan hesitated, then said, “Ryan.”
“Tell me, Ryan, what were you doing out in the woods at night.
There was something about the man that put Ryan at ease. A strange, innocent quality in his eyes that he couldn’t quite explain. So Ryan told him everything, from the baseball game to meeting the raven. “But I would’ve made it back,” he said, “I’m sure of it.”
“I’m sure you would have,” murmured Jack, staring off into space. Suddenly, he turned towards Ryan, “They’ll be looking for you by now. I best call the camp and tell them I’ve found you.” He stood and walked to the back of the cabin where a landline phone was mounted on the wall. After dialing a number, he put the phone to his ear and waited. There was a brief exchange, then he hung up.
“Well,” he said, “looks like you’re staying here tonight. We’re pretty far from camp, and I don’t fancy traveling through the forest at night after what just happened to you.” He sat down on the chair again.
“The camp just let you take me?” asked Ryan
“They know who I am,” said Jack, “They know I wont hurt you.”
Neither spoke for a minute.
“So,” said Ryan, “What now?”
“You can get some sleep, if you want.”
Ryan didn’t feel like sleeping at all, but he didn’t object. Didn’t want to offend this man, however nice he might be.
“Ok,” He said.
“I can get you some blankets if you like.”
Jack got up from his chair once more and walked down a little hallway at the back of the room. By the time he returned, the crackling fire and warm cocoa had put the boy right to sleep.
Ryan awoke to the smell of frying eggs. He’d eaten eggs only twice in his short life, but they were one of his favorite foods.
“Good morning.” said Jack
Ryan got up from the chair and walked to the table where Jack sat. A steaming plateful of eggs sat in the center of the table.
Ryan stood for a minute, staring at the plate, before Jack offered him some.
“They’re for both of us.” He said, “Here, I’ll grab you a plate.”
“Thank you.” said Ryan as he sat down.
Jack set a plate full of fried eggs in front of him.
“They’re fresh,” Jack said, “The hens just laid them this morning.”
“You have chickens?”
They finished eating in silence. When both their plates were empty, Jack stood up.
“It’s time we got you back to camp.” He said.
They walked in silence for a long time, listening to the birds sing. The path was overgrown and every once in a while they had to stop so Jack could clear the way. After a while, he began to hum a little tune, quietly at first, but it soon grew so loud Ryan was sure even the birds at the tops of the trees could hear it. Suddenly, Jack stopped and asked,
“Do you sing, Ryan?”
“Well… no, not really.”
“Would you like to try?”
Ryan was taken aback. He couldn’t think of how to respond. Finally he said,
“You probably wouldn’t like it if I did.”
“What makes you so sure.”
“I dunno. Most people just tell me to be quiet.”
“Well I’m not saying that. Come on, I’ll teach you the words to this song I’m humming. It’ll give us something to do while we walk.”
“OK…” said Ryan, unsure what to make of this new development.
So Jack spent the rest of the walk teaching Ryan a few of his favorite songs. It was an exhilarating experience for him. He’d never felt so good, so free, in all his life.
“When I grow up,” said Ryan after a particularly rousing song, “I want to live out in a forest like this.”
Jack laughed, “And why’s that?”
“There aren’t any rules out here. I can sing when I want and go where I please. It’s a like heaven.”
“Yes, I guess it really is. I never thought of it that way.”
“Jack,” Ryan said, “Why do you live out in the woods?”
Jack’s smile disappeared.
“That’s a long story, Ryan. I’m not sure we have the time.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to- oh look, we’re here.”
Ryan turned to see the camp, standing before him.
“I have a present for you.” said Jack.
“Yes. For if you ever find yourself lost.”
Jack reached into his pocket and pulled out a small wooden whistle.
“This is my token. Do you know what that means?”
“It lets my friends know that you are my friend too. Blow it if you ever find yourself in danger. If any of my friends hears it, they will come to your aid.”
Ryan’s face lit up. “Does this mean we’re friends?”
Jack smiled. “Yes, it does. Now you really should get going. They’ll be wondering if you’ve gotten lost.” He laughed at his own joke.
Ryan began to walk towards the camp, then stopped.
“Thank you for everything, Jack.”
Then Ryan walked out of the freedom of the forest and back into the regimented world mankind has worked so hard to craft for themselves. But he would never forget the woodman. His first true friend.