There was a game we played at my primary school called “Giant in the forest.” Every day, even if it rained, the fourth and fifth grade teachers took us to this small playground with a jungle gym, swings, and a big grassy space where we could run if we wanted to. On the far side of that were the woods, and we weren’t supposed to go in but there wasn’t a fence or anything separating us from the wild and the teachers never paid attention because it was their one smoke break of the day and even if they’d looked up and seen the white tails of our skirts disappearing into the dark branches, they probably would have shrugged and lit another. That’s the way the teachers were then. They knew our options were limited, and nothing bad could ever really happen.
My cousin Abbey was the one who made up the game. She was sore one day because she used to go with this boy Tom, but now Tom was going with Samantha who used to be Abbey’s best friend. Tom didn’t go to our school, no boys did, but our school and his shared the same bus stop and he and Abbey used to stand together, next to the sign, but then one day he was standing there with Samantha and so that afternoon Abbey chased Samantha into the woods and then we all started doing it.
Chasing wasn’t the point. We could play tag or freeze tag or werewolf on the grass just as easily. The point was to run so far that your legs got real long and your arms got real long and your hair stayed the same so it was all spiky at the end of your new giant head. Your fingernails and toenails didn’t change either, they shrank up and disappeared. Abbey said it wouldn’t hurt if you poked them, where the skin was all pink and bare and raw. She said it’d feel just like tickling, but none of us wanted to try. But if you didn’t look at them, or think about it, if you just ran really far and jumped and screamed, and moved all the time in every direction, then you forgot how exposed you were and it didn’t matter.
The one rule we had was to be quick about taking off your uniform: shoes, blouse, skirt, stockings, underwear, and a training bra if you were wearing one of those. Otherwise they’d rip and the teachers noticed things like that. The end of that first week we all got “Assez Bien” cards at Primes because we’d shown up to general instruction with missing buttons and bare legs. Well, all of us except Samantha. It was like she knew before the rest of us what to do, and so she’d waltzed back to class with her hair neat and her shirt tucked. She wasn’t sent to the office to stand with her back straight and eyes down and listen as Reverend Mother Francis Louise (whom we still called Lulu behind her back because that’s how she’d introduced herself when we started in Kindergarten) lectured us about how we needed to take pride in our personal appearance because it was a reflection of our inner strength or beauty or spirituality or something like that.
Abbey told me later that she thought Samantha just nicked whatever clothes she needed that didn’t look too rough. Eventually that’s what we all did. Everything went into a big pile in the damp grass and the first one back got first pick. Last one had to make do with what was left. One day a little fourth grader had to walk back barefoot because she could only find a left shoe and it was too small for her anyway. I told her it was probably better to go without than try to explain why one was missing and the other shrank. Only the next day she came without shoes again because her mother told her they didn’t have the money to replace them and maybe a few days in bare feet would help her remember that. The parking lot in front of the school had just been paved—a dark black that could melt pencils when the sun got real high. It was also rough and pebbly because it hadn’t been driven over for years and years and each day that little fourth grade girl’s stockings would run and then she’d get sent home because it wasn’t healthy to let a girl walk through the hallways and classrooms barefoot. Then one day Samantha brought her a pair of Samantha’s old shoes, which I thought was nice of her and said so.
Samantha and I didn’t get along before then, but not because of Abbey. In fact Abbey and I hadn’t gotten along because of Samantha until the thing with Tom.
Samantha and I didn’t get along because Samantha transferred a couple of weeks before Christmas and Lulu let her sign up for the memorization contest even though it was past the deadline. There was a prize that year, a good one. Lulu had a small statue of the Virgin Mary in her office. Hand painted, she said, from Italy: blue gown, white cheeks, and dark, dark eyelashes. It was beautiful, and the only thing worth getting sent to the office for because you could look at it while she lectured you. I wanted it before I even understood what it was to want such things. We all liked to say it’d been given to Lulu by the Pope himself, which of course was ridiculous but in the absence of the real story we had to make up our own.
Every year Lulu asked us to memorize some poem or passage. If you did well you got a medal that week at Primes, no matter what your test grades were. I was pretty good at it. I would read the text a few times and have it down: “Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood,” “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” the “To Be or Not to Be” bit from Hamlet which none of us understood but that wasn’t necessary to parrot it back, word for word, line by line, completely devoid of its intended meaning. That year, for the statue, she asked us to memorize the Christmas story. The Gospel According to Luke or Matthew, it didn’t matter, but you had to recite all of it. I picked Luke because it begins with Gabriel and at the time I thought I could marry a man with a name like that.
Most girls only got a few lines in. Abbey, in a rare showing, actually managed to get through ten verses before she faded off.
I knew all of it. So did Samantha.
They would’ve let us tie, and one girl could get the statue right then and Lulu said she’d find another one just like it. I didn’t think that was fair; we should’ve been judged on our delivery and our poise and our past history of excellent recitation skills. Then Samantha said she must have misunderstood the rules. Weren’t we supposed to memorize both versions?
• • • •
The worst part of the giant game was coming back. We’d knock down trees and chase deer and pick up wolves with our bare hands and bang logs together, then one of us would hear the first warning bell and call to the others. None of us liked that part, as we trudged back to the edge of the woods, just close enough that our bodies would come back, just far enough that we were still hidden. We’d get smaller and the world wouldn’t. For the rest of the day we’d think about our giant selves, small and caged in our small blouses, our small skins, and we would mourn.
Sometimes a girl would whine that we didn’t really have to go back. Our teachers couldn’t make us, not if we all stuck together and decided to stay, but Abbey would put her hands on her hips and glare at us until we got dressed in whatever happened to be lying around and go back to history or handwriting or general instruction where no one else ever noticed that we didn’t look quite the same as we had that morning.
We didn’t act the same either. It was hard to remember how to get our legs to bend properly, our ankles to cross. It was hard to remember who was important, who wasn’t, and how to respond to each. There were women in the school we were meant to ignore: young girls with small paunches near the waists of their robes. They swept and washed and we knew they were part of the church, real nuns who had taken vows and shorn their hair and everything, but we were supposed to walk by them as if they were ghosts. We were only supposed to curtsey to our teachers, to call them Sister Mary Margaret Jane Clementine Victor Vincent Dimaggio or whatever. But it was confusing so we just curtsied everywhere we went, like a sort of skip or prance down the hallway. Even to the teachers who weren’t nuns at all: who dressed in normal clothes and you could see at the grocery store on Sunday buying bread. We curtsied to them in the frozen foods aisle, between waffles and concentrated juices. They rolled their eyes at us, but didn’t care or yell or send us to the office to promise we wouldn’t do it again. These were the teachers who smoked and watched us by not watching us. These were the teachers we liked best; we were all rolling our eyes together.
One week we had a substitute in History, a small woman with frizzy hair and a loud voice. She lectured at us for twenty minutes on the Civil War, her back turned to the room as she wrote dates and battles and generals in tight, prim handwriting that we could hardly read. Abbey got bored and walked to the back where there was a big closet for our boots and overcoats in the winter. She went in; she shut the door. One by one, the other girls followed until it was so crowded, girls were spilling out.
By the time the teacher turned around, only Samantha and I were still sitting at our desks. The teacher stormed to the back of the room, reached in and grabbed Abbey by her arm, yanking her out. Whether the teacher knew it was Abbey who started it, or it was just the first bit of flesh she got a hold of, I don’t know.
“What do you think you’re doing back here?” she asked.
“Listening,” Abbey said. “I hear better from far away.”
“Right then,” the teacher said. “What have I been saying?”
And Abbey repeated it. Word for word. As if she’d known this was exactly what was going to happen when she first stood up, and she’d waited in that small, dark room, not dreaming what we would’ve been dreaming: about her giant self and the freedom, but about the moment where an adult would demand she defend her actions, and she’d be able to. When Abbey was done, the teacher turned around, walked up to the board, and kept lecturing.
Abbey didn’t get a card that week at Primes. We knew it could happen, but we’d never seen it. “No notes,” Lulu said, and the girls nearest Abbey took an almost imperceptible step away from her. Abbey shrugged and walked back to her seat.
Samantha and I each got medals for “politeness.” Samantha wore hers pinned to the gray ribbon we wore as a sash for just this purpose. I put mine in a box.
In the woods, some of us got big faster than others but none of us got big faster than Samantha. Almost as soon as her feet touched the pine needles they’d start to stretch and pull and then she’d go on a tear. Samantha would run around with her big, giant feet and one day she accidentally stepped on this little fourth grader and broke the poor girl’s leg. We told the teachers the girl had fallen off the swing set. It happens, the teachers said.
Sometimes we wondered if there were other forests out there. Did the boys’ school have one? Did Tom and his friends shed their clothes every day and stomp through the woods as if the entire world would bend to their will? Were there forests that did other things? Was there a forest to turn us into rabbits or birds? One to turn us invisible? One in which we could fly? One day Samantha suggested we should each pick a direction and explore as much as we could. We could draw maps and write instructions, both for each other and for the girls who would come after.
Abbey said it was pointless, a waste of effort. By the time we went far enough to really get anywhere, it would already be time to turn around and come home. And we couldn’t write anything down because it was a secret. What if the woods only allowed a certain number of girls? What if Samantha’s big mouth ruined it for all of them?
Then Samantha and Abbey really got into it. Each of them accused the other of trying to control the group and how everyone was mad at her for it but too polite to say so. Their faces got red and their lips turned white and when it looked like they were finally going to hit each other, they both turned to all of us.
“Which one of us is it?” they demanded. “Which one of us do you resent for making you do what you don’t want to?”
We didn’t answer; we weren’t that stupid.
It got better after that, for a while. Abbey would run in one direction and Samantha would run in another. But then one time we went into the woods and none of us got big except Samantha. She took off and didn’t hear us calling after her and we all sat around in the grass ripping up dandelions.
“Selfish,” Abbey said. “She’s just so selfish.”
Slowly we all got dressed and went back to the swings.
When Samantha came back, we didn’t tell her what had happened. Abbey told us not to. When the other girls asked why not, I said Samantha would just feel guilty, taking up all the magic for herself and leaving us behind. So we didn’t tell her, and later I could see the other girls glance at her sideways. They were all a bit sore at her, thinking that Abbey had been right all along and the woods were teaching us a lesson not to follow Samantha. And Samantha picked up that we were all cross, but couldn’t figure out the why of it. When she asked me, I told her not to worry. I told her it would pass.
For a while I worried that Samantha would latch on to me. That she’d invite me over to her house, and we’d be friends like she and Abbey had been friends. She’d tell me stories about her old schools, and how her mother once pinched the sides of her waist and told her to watch her diet. How her father didn’t understand the importance of holy cards, of medals and ribbons and why it mattered if you had a good grade in Posture. Samantha did none of these things. She thanked me and went back to her desk and hunched her shoulders over her worksheet.
After the girl with the broken leg, there were more accidents. Once we were all running and someone ran into me and I scraped the right side of my cheek against a rough-barked pine. It scabbed over and I had a hard time eating for a while, but I didn’t have to wear a cast or limp around so I counted myself lucky. Abbey got bit by an animal. She wouldn’t say what, but she told the teacher a spider did it. Marian and a few other girls had a sword fight with broken branches and she ended up with a puncture wound that she tried not telling her mother about, but then it got infected and it was bad for a while. It happens.
We knew we needed to be more careful, but it was a temporary thought, no more or less important than the occasional nest of dead beetles we found coloring our callused heels. Even Abbey and Samantha were better while in the woods, running away from each other and never crossing paths. We were all better. It was when we came back, when we filed in line and clacked our shoes and straightened our skirts and pulled each other’s hair and gave each other dark looks at the bus stop when someone stood with someone she wasn’t supposed to that it all started to go sideways again.
So of course we couldn’t stop, not if we had any hope of getting along. But Abbey said if girls kept getting hurt accidentally the teachers would stop leaning against the brick wall with their heads drooping. They’d pay attention, and then we couldn’t go anyway. It was better to lay off for a little while, to play on the swings and the merry-go-round. It was better to have the option: to know we could run full tilt into the shade, to get big and loud, than to be permanently forbidden to ever do so again. It was beautifully, tragically logical, and we all knew it.
Samantha told her to shove off; each girl could do whatever she wanted and there wasn’t anything Abbey could do about it.
So while Abbey and I and the other girls went back to the swing sets and the merry-go-round and the monkey bars and slides, Samantha ran into the woods by herself. No one chased her, but we all watched the white of her back shining in the sun as she dropped her shirt to the ground, then her skirt, then her bra. She screamed once for the joy and the freedom and the power of it all and that’s when we knew she would never come back out again.
She didn’t belong with us. It happens.