Two Years in a Tent in the Woods

Sage Tyrtle

I live in suburbia. I have hair down to the small of my back, I have sparkly blue eye shadow because it’s 1998. I have a partner named Todd, I have a really boring newborn son, I have an Acura Integra. I have a cat whose mother had distemper so the cat can’t walk very fast. I have a white picket fence and sunflowers in my backyard.

And every day my partner Todd gets in the Acura Integra and drives to his suburban job, and I’m home with the baby. I love the baby. I would cheerfully step in front of a bus for the baby. But he sleeps, and nurses, and pees, and poops, and every once in awhile he stares in an unfocused way at the wall and this is not the giggling love-fest with fluttering white curtains that the Pampers ads promised at all.

Meanwhile, after nine hours in a suit and tie, Todd parks the Acura Integra, comes inside and pops the baby in a sling. Then they go for a two hour walk. When he gets home I look up from my book and I say, “Two hours with no one to talk to? You’re my hero.”

Todd beams down at the sleeping baby and whispers, “He saw the moon. And he smiled.” Todd has surveyed the stormy seas of parenting, flapped his wings and taken off, wheeling happily above the waves while the baby appoints himself the president of Todd’s fan club. Meanwhile, I flail around in the sand, wide-eyed and astounded, saying things like, “Wait, wait, you mean the baby’s going to be here all the time?

And then Todd gets sent away on a four-day business trip. When he gets back the baby is incandescent with rage because, I mean, he’s not even two months old. Todd was away for ten percent of his whole life. And not only did Todd go away, he left the baby with me. I am very kind to the baby! It’s just he can tell I would rather be at the dentist than changing his diaper. Todd is walking around the house patting our howling son on his back and saying, “I don’t want to be this kind of dad. The kind that’s always away on business trips and is only home home late at night and on weekends.”

And I say, “If I have to spend one more day with someone who can’t locate Japan on a map or name the members of Duran Duran or communicate their needs without—” I shoot the baby a look—”screaming, I will lose my mind.”

Todd stops walking. The baby hiccups himself into silence. Todd says, “Let’s do something different.” So we do. The next day, Todd quits his job. We cash in our savings, we give away everything we own, and we move to a yurt. A round 314-square-foot tent made of canvas and wood on a piece of rural land that belongs to friends. And now, I live in the forest. I have a crew cut, I have dirty t-shirts, I have a skylight. I have a partner, I have a growing son, I have a wood stove. I have trees in every direction as far as the eye can see and yeah, the cat came too.

We don’t have any running water, but we do have watching our son take his first steps together. We don’t have any electricity, but we do have hearing our son’s first word. (Daddy.) And I wish I could tell you that our new life in the forest makes the baby magically more interesting. It doesn’t. But we’re living off our savings, which means Todd and our son spend their days cooking together, drawing, exploring the woods. They come back with piles of grey rocks that look exactly alike to me and Todd tells me the complex history of each one before displaying them carefully on the bookshelf. My face flushes with the mingled joy and guilt I feel every time I sit down to write stories in silence. 

Todd’s hair gets longer and longer. Soon he’s tying it back with a tie-dye bandana and trimming his beard with the safety scissors from the craft box. One morning I wake before dawn. He’s quietly making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “Hey,” he whispers. “We’re gonna walk up to the highest hill and watch the sun rise.” I wish him luck and wave out the yurt window as they walk through the dark woods before falling asleep again with the cat on my pillow.

One morning during our second winter in the woods, we wake up to the pitter-patter of snow on the yurt roof. We stoke up the fire, we scramble tofu on the gas stove. We put our Vince Guaraldi cassette on the battery operated boombox and sing along, “Snowflakes in the air, carols everywhere, olden times and ancient rhymes, of love and dreams to share…”

But then it just keeps snowing. Day after day after day. Todd walks the half-mile to the driveway where we keep the car, and comes back shaking his head. “I couldn’t even get out of the driveway,” he says. “We’ll have to wait for the snow to stop.”

During the second week, we run out of lamp oil. Which means no lamps after dark, and in the woods dark comes around four in the afternoon. We light candles and sing songs. We tell stories about Anansi and Baba Yaga and after our son falls asleep Todd and I play high stakes backgammon by candlelight, the loser has to fetch water the next day or bury the contents of the poop bucket.

At the start of the third week, we run out of gas for the gas stove, but that’s not a big deal because all we have left to eat are thirty cartons of Fantastic Foods Black Bean Salsa Couscous. It’s a dry mix in a cardboard container made of dehydrated beans and salsa powder. We boil water on the wood stove and add water then mix it into a beige slurry and choke it down. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And sometimes we eat it at three in the morning as we glumly stare out of the dark windows, reassuring each other that it can’t snow for the rest of our lives.

And the snow keeps falling. Day and night. Our world shrinks to a round 314-square-feet space populated with three human beings. The sky switches between sullen grey and a slightly more cheerful white. We don’t get mean like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, we don’t hallucinate scary old ladies living in the stockpot that serves as our son’s bathtub or make snow mazes surrounding the yurt. We’re just, you know, sad.

And then, at the end of the fourth week, we wake up to no pitter. No patter. It’s blessedly silent. I rush to the window and look out. It’s stopped snowing. We run and get in the car and zoom the thirty miles into town, where the roads are plowed and little old ladies are teetering along the sidewalk in high heels. We laugh when the man in the pickup in front of us stops, pulls over, and hollers, “Mrs. Landry, what are you doing? Please get in this truck right now.”

We stop at the Town & Country Supermarket and buy groceries, at the library we stagger towards the counter, our arms filled with books. We get lamp oil and propane gas, we annoy the people behind us in every line as we linger at the checkout, beside ourselves with the opportunity to talk to Linda The Clerk who we haven’t spoken to in a month. And then of course it starts snowing again. So we have to go home.

Inside the yurt I put on an audio book to keep our son happy. Todd hooks up the propane gas because by God he’s going to make something for dinner that does not have black beans, or couscous, or salsa in it, and I am pouring the lamp oil when outside – we hear a roar. A roar that builds and builds to a crescendo and finally grinds to a stop.

Todd, frozen at the gas stove, says, “That’s a bear.”

And I know we all wonder who we’re going to be when the Zombie Apocalypse comes. Will we be the person with the shotgun who sternly but with love keeps a ragtag band of survivors safe? Or will we be the one who looks outside on the first morning and says, “What’s wrong with that LADY?” and goes outside and immediately dies?

And I always thought that I’d be that second person, the dead one, but when Todd says, “That’s a bear,” I snap into action. I run around the yurt, pulling down the window shades. I shut and lock the skylight. I lock the door – it’s a canvas tent, but it has a wooden door, with a lock like a bathroom door in a house (Can bears open doors? I don’t know! I’m from suburbia!) and I order Todd and our son to sit with me in the middle of the yurt and be quiet.

Because if the bear can’t see us, and the bear can’t hear us, we’re safe.

Todd and I look at each other. I hold out my shaking hands and Todd holds out his. I mouth, “Will we be okay?” and Todd nods emphatically.

Meanwhile our two-year-old is waving his hands around, shouting, “Is there a BEAR? Daddy, can we go SEE IT?”

Todd and I whisper-shout, “Shh, baby, shh, shh, shhhh. We’re all being quiet now.” He nods an enormous nod and puts his hand over his mouth to show how quiet he can be.

Todd leans over and says in my ear, “Listen. I have an idea. I’m going to put on my shoes. I’m going to run past the bear, and go to Ron’s house—”

“Ron lives a mile away,” I say in a low voice.

“Listen, I’m going to run to Ron’s house and get his gun and—”

But I’m already falling over with silent laughter. Like me, the closest Todd’s ever come to a gun was that one time we watched a Miami Vice episode together. “That’s very sweet,” I wheeze, “but also insane—”

Which is when there is a new sound outside. “Mrrr?” and then a low roar.

And I know immediately that it’s the cat. Not just the cat, but the cat whose mother had distemper which means she struggles to walk and can’t get away from a determined two-year-old, much less a bear. I stand up. I say, “I have to save the cat—”

But Todd catches my arm. He looks up at me and gestures to our son who is watching us with wide eyes. “We can’t save the cat,” Todd says. “We have to think of our son first.” And so I sit back down and put my hands over my face. Todd puts his hands over our son’s ears. It’s the longest three minutes of my life. Outside we can hear, “Mrrr… roar…” until both sounds fade away.

In the terrible silence that follows there is a new sound. “Ca-CHUNK-chunk,” the tape in the boombox is switching sides and what we’re about to hear is, “Hello! And welcome to the Children’s Audio Book Hour!” and the bear will hear it too! And come smash through the walls of the tent! He will eat me and then Todd and save the baby for last like a delicious wriggling panna cotta dessert!

I leap across the yurt in what feels like slow motion and I hit stop on the boombox.

And this is what we all hear: “Rooooa—”

Then—silence.

I look at Todd and Todd looks at me.

I reach over and press play again. “—aaaaaar.”

We learned so much living for two years in a tent in the woods, but mostly we learned that if the batteries in your boombox are cold enough, anything you play will sound like a bear outside. Eating your cat.

Todd cracks up and I join in and soon we’re all rolling around on the floor laughing. Our son stage-whispers as we’re all catching our breath, “Can we go see the bear now?” which sends Todd and I off into gales of new laughter. For the rest of the night Todd and I wail things like, “We have to think of our son first,” and then we collapse in giggles again. I feed the cat a can of StarKist tuna, a treat I have never given her before and she sits staring at it for awhile, like it might be a trick. I tell her it’s because I didn’t save her from the imaginary bear and she gives me a look then dives in and the tuna’s gone in thirty seconds.

The next day the sky is a rich blue, the white trees in sharp contrast. There’s a steady drip of melting snow off the edges of the yurt roof. Our son wants to go outside, and while I feed wood into the stove Todd bundles him in warm clothes until he’s a small sphere. We all step outside together. The sun is glittering on the snow and our little planet starts running in circles, looking at the sky.

“Mama!” he says, “Mama, I’m shining!” And he is.

Not long after that, the friends who own the land decide to sell it. And then 9/11 happens. And our nearby small town flips from friendly pickup truck waves to gun racks and American flags plastered on the hood and no one stops to pick up the teetering old ladies because they’re running late for a Star-Spangled Banner sing-along down at the Baptist church. Until one day Todd and I are sitting talking and I say, “If I have to spend one more day with people who can’t wait to tell me who they hate while trying to hand me a flag sticker and who can’t explain their emotions without,” I glance at our son, “warmongering, I will lose my mind.”

Todd says, “Okay. Let’s do something different.”

So we do. We move to Canada. 

And now I live in the city. I have a high-rise. I have a shaved head and bright blue bangs. I have a partner and a five-year-old son. I have a monthly subway pass and a cat and at night I watch the lights of the bustling buildings.

And one day, my son and I are walking along the shore of Lake Ontario holding hands. There’s a fine drizzle and the waves are lapping at the shore. And he is telling me a story about Bagel Man and Celery Guy, waving his free hand around for emphasis, and for the first time, the very first time, I’m not wondering how much longer this walk is going to take. This walk can take forever. And I’d be perfectly happy.

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Sage Tyrtle is a storyteller whose stories have been featured on NPR, CBC, and PBS. She is a Moth GrandSLAM winner. When she was five she wanted to be a princess until her dad explained that princesses live in a dystopian patriarchy, so she switched to being a writer instead. More: www.tyrtle.com.