I first saw this place through the eye of a drone. Footage taken in summer, when the grass at the edge of the sea cliffs turns gold.
It was three panels of color on my screen, from left to right: blue, yellow, and green. Ocean, sand and field, forest. One long white line unfurled after another, over the blue to the yellow. And faded.
The marshy springs at the camp were mostly flats of cracked mud, so the largest body of water I’d ever seen was our rainwater tank. A dirty white goliath lifted up from the ground on squat legs.
Inland, where I grew up, a dry wash cut through the walls of a canyon. The trees around it were skeletons, the ghosts of cottonwoods and willows. Their roots were frail and had long since ceased to clutch the earth: we once pushed one over easily. But looking at the fallen tree, its broken roots delicate and spidery, we resolved never to push down another. Even standing there dead, they were good company.
Old timers called the wash a river. It too was a ghost.
My baby brother liked to run straight down the steep banks, feet sliding, spindly arms wind-milling as he sped up. I’d feel my stomach clutch, afraid that he might slip. Even small injuries could be bad at the camp. Now and then a nurse or a midwife came through, but we had seen their efforts fail.
Where we lived, everything was brown. I gazed at the colors of that footage on our device and realized place was all there was.
“From savannas and evergreen forests,” said the ad copy on the site, “to the soaring cliffs and rocky pinnacles of this unspoiled gem of the Pacific coast, clients are treated to a spectacular landscape. And beautiful wildlife roaming free.”
There were pictures of forest animals—a fawn browsing in the grass, a hawk with wings outspread. A bobcat with kittens.
Posts were available there, at the leisure facility. I decided to take the online course and tests, and if I passed them, submit my file. I would apply no matter how slim the odds: I wanted nothing more than to go where trees lived and water flowed.
Mo would come with me; that was our dream. In select cases, if an applicant scored high enough, the facility would make room for a family member.
Our parents meant well, but they worked so hard they were shadows. They spoke only when spoken to.
Meanwhile, home was the screen. Movies from the camp’s archives. Tales of lives from the past, some true and some invented. Our favorite time was evening, when we finished our chores and nestled together on our thin mattress, heads bent over our device, in a bright trance.
Mo chose to watch shows, and I watched with him. After he fell asleep, I ran the practice tests.
Once, the screen went black and couldn’t be fixed. It took us months of scavenging to save up for a new device. We could use the camp’s shared console from time to time, but children were low on the list. So we had little to do, after our tasks were completed, but dig for trade.
In the landfill we had a precious advantage—it dated from olden times and held a trove of riches. Adults lacked the patience and time to dig down as far as we did. We found a hand-cranked wooden box our parents said was for grinding the beans of an energy drink. We found pieces of jewelry and birth-control and pain pills, years since expired, but holding some value still. Silver-plated forks, a brand-new doll in a box, a stroller, a copper kettle, lighters, a two-burner gas stove. All told, we collected forty-six things to trade with the peddlers.
Waiting for them to arrive, we read paper books from the common tent. Mo looked at the maps of old countries in a large, shabby world atlas, pronouncing their exotic names. “Pakistan, Bangladesh,” he would say, and point to them on the page.
Looks were a major factor in work applications: only attractive candidates would have a chance at selection. Photos were needed for the file, with a time and GPS stamp. Clients didn’t want to be served by hardscrabble who reminded them of the derelicts. I took to wearing a wide-brimmed hat to keep my skin from wrinkling in the sun. Next to our device, that hat was my most prized possession. My mother didn’t wear a hat, and her face looked like leather.
Our long days of work ran together, one much the same as the next. The springs gave off a sulfurous smell. There were chickens to feed in a faded red henhouse, fenced high and sharp to keep out the coyotes and feral dogs. There were ragged goats to tend, with dung clinging to their underbellies and tails. The goats were bad-tempered. One was such a vicious biter we weren’t even sad when he went under the knife.
His meat was tough. But nourishing.
The camp was a cluster of rust-stained trailers, tires sunk into the mud. Tents and outbuildings and metal rain gutters strung together, with satellite dishes rising above. Generators that made noise when there was fuel to run them. A precious solar array guarded by teens with shotguns.
Mo was too young to be entrusted with a gun. His duties were gathering eggs and patching tent holes, sweeping sand out of the tents and pulling up weeds in the vegetable gardens.
The facility’s ad site reminded me of pictures I’d found browsing. Photos of lit-up window boxes in a historic museum. I’d shown the pictures to Mo and we read about these buildings, which anyone had been allowed to go into. The lit-up windows were artificial landscapes behind large panels of glass.
Each of the windows was a scene. I preferred the winter scenes, with snow-capped peaks painted on their back walls, and in the foreground, life-sized replicas of extinct animals. White bears and brown wolverines. Mo’s favorite landscape contained hulking ocean mammals with tusks. Walrus, said a plaque. “Big funny teeth,” said Mo. “And they’re so fat!” They’d looked like grave elderly men. They even had whiskers.
He laughed at those whiskers, delighted.
Sometimes the artists had made their life-sized models with the animals’ own skins. I learned that but didn’t tell Mo. I didn’t want to have to say, Don’t cry, you tender-hearted boy.
Terrible. But lovely.
Woodland is a remote stretch of country twenty miles from the main leisure complex. Supplies were delivered to us in mud-spattered vans, rattling over dirt roads that could be deeply rutted. After one of the powerful coastal storms, the roads got so uneven they had to bring diggers in. Trucks dragging chains.
Field staff had an all-terrain vehicle to drive, and I had to learn quickly. I loved driving. We lived together in a log cabin, fine and solid. It sits in a clearing surrounded by trees and has a rustic appearance.
The décor here was based on old America, its wilderness and parks. At one trailhead a sign stands even now, battered by time and weather, with a friendly cartoon bear on it wearing a hat. A faded, mysterious fragment of speech beside him. “Only YOU forest fires.”
At the beginning, Management used helicopters to fly in the clients, but the noise of these brought down the ratings, and by the time I got here, clients arrived by jeep or boat.
I marveled at these personal transports. When I got hired, a bolt from the blue that still surprises me when I recall it, they gave me one week to report for duty. It was touch and go whether I’d make it. I’d waited years for an offer. All but given up.
My parents were more silent than ever, having to say goodbye. Yet they took up a collection of trade items to pay for my bus trains. I’d send back my wages, in food and medicine, to repay the debt.
The real trains had gone out of service route by route, tracks fallen into disrepair. Buses traveled together in caravans, armed guards at the front and rear, picking up and delivering passengers and cargo among the camps and citadels. I had to make eight connections to get to the leisure facility, with detours for buckling, impassable asphalt. I slept on the ground at the nexus points. In the end, I was three days over the week they’d allowed, but they accepted me anyway.
Luckily I’d had nothing on me to be stolen while I slept. My father had read reports of assaults: he’d knotted my hair and streaked my face with dirt to make me unappealing. Draped me in a long coat that smelled of goat manure and urine.
And Mo wasn’t with me to protect. My posting had come too late for him.
During training they drove us around the grounds, with maps to orient ourselves on company-owned devices. One stop was at the cliffs. I stood at the edge of the cliffs and gazed at the ocean.
It wasn’t blue and open. Near the shore, beneath us, structures of jetties and nets jutted into the water. Fish farms, the driver told me. I realized the footage I’d watched had been outdated.
Far beyond the jetties the ocean stretched to the horizon. I couldn’t get close to it.
But at least I could see.
Next to us was a hunting service. When Management bought the land, in former times a national forest, they split it in two and ran half of it as a service for nature visitors. The other half was given to Chasseur. French for hunter. The other leisure companies offered services with similar names—“Elegant Chase,” “Country Squire,” “Field and Stream.”
Chasseur clients wished to have the aura of gentlemen. The ad site said, “to the manor born.” They stayed in a lodge modeled on an ancient French château and ate together at long tables, served their dinner off platters by staff. They hunted herds of elk and bighorn sheep with the help of trained dogs. Sometimes, when I drew near the boundary, I could hear hounds baying faintly in the distance.
There was a stable of captive-bred animals here: raccoons, skunks, possums, even beavers. I helped to feed, water, and care for them. Furbearers do live wild on the grounds, but they could be elusive. We had to stage-manage, since clients were promised they’d see forest creatures. We couldn’t leave it up to chance.
Some of the animals shared their dens with cockroaches. They didn’t seem to mind. It was the beavers I wished Mo could’ve met. There’d been a family of them in a favorite picture book I’d read to him when he was six. In it, beavers and rabbits wore clothing and had the power of speech. They went on picnics and played games and said things human children might say.
I understood they were children, only with different faces and bodies. But Mo assumed that long ago the animals had spoken. Not chickens or goats, but wild ones. He was hopeful their descendants would be willing to talk also.
The only wild animals at the camp were packrats, coyotes and vultures. A few times he hovered near the henhouse at dusk waiting for coyotes to approach, planning a conversation.
“Real wild creatures don’t talk,” I had to tell him finally.
For a while after that he was annoyed by the picture book. “It’s all made up,” he said bitterly.
But soon his bitterness softened and he asked for the story again. Mo was a cheerful little boy. He never stayed angry.
The citadels where clients lived were luxe but sterile, I was told. Some of them missed the unfenced world and cherished an idea of wilderness: the branches of massive trees that swayed in the breeze. Sunbeams that dappled the leaves.
And for the steep price of a safari, they could see that dappled light. But there were risks: mosquitos that carried disease, blackflies, rattlesnakes. Maybe a large predator, though these were seldom seen. Smaller hazards like twisted ankles, thirst, and exhaustion. When clients requested alone time they had to be monitored. A staff surgeon was always on call.
I felt peace descend as I followed one at a distance, rambling along a stream or spotting birds through field glasses. Their presence comforted me. It proved that some people still did exactly as they wished.
But clients came less often. Economies were made, stricter and stricter. Our salaries dwindled until we earned only room and board. We didn’t know if this was occurring at all the facilities or only our own. The company blocked access to the ad sites of their competition—they didn’t want employees comparing notes.
In the waning years, many staff left, abandoning their posts without notice. I took on more and more responsibility, and the service was stripped down to its basics.
With fewer employees, accidents got more frequent. In Chasseur, one client was mauled by a mountain lion. The few lions that remained had no fondness for people. Company ratings took a hit.
Another was killed by gunshot at the hand of a fellow hunter. They all signed documents that said Management couldn’t be blamed. But we knew supervision had turned lax.
At the end it was just me and a man named Charlie in the cabin. He was tough, a former soldier who taught me many tricks for living. How to make fires and fix broken tools. Which mushrooms and berries could be safely eaten. I depended on his wisdom.
Our last client had none of the confidence of those I’d guided before. She had an attitude of defeat.
She talked to me as we walked through the forest. I didn’t know what animals we might encounter, since the last of the captives had been released—I couldn’t care for them all myself, and Charlie worried about sickness and malnutrition. So we had set them free.
This was her swan song, she said. She’d wanted to be somewhere green. To remember, now that she had nothing. Her children were gone, she said. She’d lost track of them. Her husband was gone too. He had left to look for them, and then also disappeared.
She’d had to abandon their home, she said. A wildfire had torn through her citadel, and after that she’d had to move to another, and was assigned a new device with new digits. The registries rarely got updated. Her family might be out there, but she had given up on finding them.
We walked for hours without seeing a single animal. All we heard was the chatter of birds up in the canopy.
“It’s alright,” said the client. “The trees are enough.”
Charlie pitched a tent for her among the pines. We cooked her evening meal. She’d brought a bottle of wine and offered to share it with us. She was generous.
One glass was enough to make me light-headed, though, as Charlie advised, I drank it slowly. I hadn’t tasted such an expensive drink before. And haven’t since.
Over the campfire the client told us of her many adventures, and later these memories would sustain me. In slow times I still run over them in my head. As though they are my own.
She told how once she’d gone climbing in tall mountains halfway across the globe, known as the Himalayas. That was in the era of chartered jet flights. Only the oligarchs still flew, she said. Another time she’d danced in a great hall with enormous jeweled lights that hung from the ceiling. People wore special clothes for the occasion. Clothes they would only wear that night, she said, and probably not wear again.
Once she’d even had a pet. A large, amiable dog. Not trained for hunting or feral. When her daughter was born, the dog had been jealous. The dog had barked at the baby. But over time he’d come to love her. He had been fiercely protective of that baby until the day he died.
In the morning, she left. And no one came after her.
When the facility was shuttered I stayed here, on the grounds. A few of us did; we had nowhere else to go.
They warned us we’d be wide open. No electricity or security. No uplink to connect us, and anyway our devices would soon lose their power and turn to scrap. The orchards that gave us fruit would go untended. Well water could not be pumped, without power. We’d only have water from the creeks, and a few chemical filters.
Eventually scavengers would wander in from the derelicts.
We said we’d take our chances. Charlie had his eye on an A-frame a couple of miles away that was standing empty. He liked the location. So he left the cabin to me.
Now we live spaced out across the vast acreage, the ones who lasted. On the first day of each month we hike in from our separate dwellings to Charlie’s house. There we trade from our gardens. Matches or First Aid items. Sometimes a can of beans or soup left over from the days of abundance.
I find myself thinking of Mo, how it would have been to have him here with me. If he hadn’t fallen ill back then.
Mo will always be a small boy.
But what if you’d grown up?, I ask his memory. And weren’t a boy forever?
One time I saw a movement in the trees, and for a split-second my heart beat fast. As though it could be him. Come back to me.
But it was a black bear. Limping and very thin.
We’d sit here at the end of a day and drink our cups of tea. I make it with fragrant herbs Charlie taught me to gather. We’d rock on the porch swing on my cabin deck, just the two of us, and gaze out to where the clearing meets the forest. Beneath our feet these soft, gray, weathered planks.
The sun paints the sky at dusk, clouds lit up pink and red over the trees. Sometimes deer amble into the clearing. A doe with her fawn. Or a stag dips his head to drink from the creek, and his antlers look so heavy I can hardly believe he bears their weight.
When I walk through the woods in the right season, I find the shed antlers. I’ve picked up so many they make a lacework on the shelf over the fireplace.
Maybe, with all this time on your hands, you would have learned their language, I say to my little brother. Maybe they would have spoken to you after all.