When I was eleven years old, I went to farm camp.
I have to call it “farm camp” because I don’t really know what it was called; my parents got a brochure printed on purple-blue paper, with three pages, and that was all. According to the brochure, the campers were encouraged to do all sorts of wholesome things, such as forking hay, and would be in contact with various exotic animals, such as emus.
I want to stress, right from the start, that this camp actually did have an emu. It was a very shy animal, and we didn’t see much of it, but it was there.
Other than the emu, it wasn’t really a “camp” in any of the normal senses of the word. For example, there weren’t other campers. What there was, was an absence, created when a college student (with an internship through the University of California Davis) quit. I took over his jobs, along with the family’s son, who was also eleven.
The family was breaking up; the parents were divorcing, and the son was intensely traumatized by it. The house was divided into wings, as a result of the divorce, and the two of us lived together in a little cabin nearby. At that particular moment, he was fixated on the werewolf film Silver Bullet, and at night we would talk about werewolves, which are hard to kill.
My job, during the day, was to walk around a huge expanse of land throwing food into catfish ponds. The catfish, like the emu, were very shy; the pond would sit in brownish silence until I threw in the food. Then the surface of the water boiled black. The land was dry, and most of it was taken up with star thistle, which is an invasive and very sharp species. They work their way into your palms and ankles. When I was finished feeding the catfish, the owner would give me a pair of gloves, and I would move around the property pulling up thistles.
My shoes got so grimy with catfish mud, and thistles, that we threw them out as soon as I was home. The owner would see me safely to a huge thistle patch, and then he would disappear from the scene to make phone calls on behalf of his project, which was to save the wild bunch grasses of California. Sometimes he would call my parents, late at night, telling them that he could save a hundred acres for $10,000. He’d actually managed to buy a whole preserve of bunch grasses, and he and I spent a night there, eating graham crackers and talking about invasive plants, in a sort of treehouse he’d built with a sleeping platform. The area was full of hills, visible in the moonlight.
“Foreign species can’t survive more than a year, but our native species don’t hold out against the European grasses. The whole landscape changes,” he’d say to me, thoughtfully. The son was not there; he had broken down in a fit of crying, insisting that we’d be eaten alive.
I called home a couple of times; every time I did, the owner stood in the room with me, listening. Almost the whole week was up when I finally got across the message that “camp” was all thistles and catfish. I didn’t go home, though, being interested to see how it was going to end.
The last day was the Farmer’s Market. We were standing there, the owner and I, surrounded by huge tanks full of live catfish. He gave me an apple to eat; when I was finished, and about to throw out the core, he grabbed it and put it in his mouth. He chewed for a while, spit out a stem and two seeds into his hand, and said, “That’s how you eat an apple without wasting any.”
People would come up to us; I remember them as being young, nervous yuppies, mostly in their thirties, with clear skin and sometimes with babies. They’d order a catfish, and the owner would pull one of the black, squirming fish out of the tank, throw it on a cutting board, and wave a dull butcher knife over his head. Then he’d say, “Do you want it DEAD or ALIVE?”
“Alive!” they’d scream. At which point he would smile, lower the knife, and wrap the fish in butcher paper. I would watch them; they were universally too startled not to pay. They’d run off, with the package tucked under one arm. Without warning, for some time afterwards, their purchase would squirm.