A huge vulture swoops through the trees at night and scoops up a child unfortunate enough to be visible to it. The smaller the child in a group of children, the more likely he or she is to be taken.
That was the story a counsellor told us while we were all sitting around a campfire one night. I was 7 or 8, I think, and if not the youngest kid in my tent, I was the smallest. The counsellor pointed that out to everyone. I could escape its clutches, though, by simply going into the tent and crawling into my sleeping bag — which we had all dutifully laid out when we set up camp for the night.
OK, I bought the story. It was my first time at summer camp, and my first camping trip. And I was totally blonde. And totally terrified. So I ran into the tent and dove into my sleeping bag . . . and fell fast asleep.
The next day, the counsellor confessed that he had made it all up (seriously?) and it was years later before I realized that it was more than just a joke: it was a trick to get me to go to bed . . . (I wonder if the next smallest child was then terrorized enough to scoot off to bed, and so on and so on, before we were all safely tucked away?)
That incident is one of only a few vivid memories I have from my summer camp days as a youth — I went to a Y camp in the Laurentians for two- or four-week periods over five summers.
After the initial smile, it’s not a happy memory. I don’t blame the counsellor. How could he have known that he awakened a primal fear in me?
I have felt it a few times over the course of my life, and each time the memory of that dark night in the woods surfaces.
I feel it now.