Wanakuk by Katie Bernet

We spend our summers at Wanakuk on the spellbinding land that bows around Echo Lake. There are twelve of us in the cabin at the top of the hill. We lie in the steeplebushes and spy on the rookies while they learn each other’s names. We laugh at how soon they’ll be sisters.

They toe the waterfront in their chubby life jackets, gazing up at the striped wings of the sailboats. Soon they’ll know how to steer upwind, how to halter the quarter horses, and aim their arrows at pockmarked targets. Their private-school pale will disappear, and muscles will ripen under their easy cotton uniforms.

At the top of the hill, we share blood. Fingers pricked and touched at the end of our first summer. Stacks of woven bracelets donned until they fall from our wrists. The little girls whisper. They wonder which of us will be chosen.

We don’t mention the contest in our cabin. We sit in circles next to the bunks with wet hair, faces clean, promising friendship that will never end.

Outside, the silver canoes blister in the sun. Our legs stick to the seats while we race across the water, bodies burning, fighting through the sweat and the wind. There can only be two. A crimson captain. An ivory captain. Their pictures will hang in the dining hall even after they die.

We imagine ourselves winning. While we pluck raspberries from the bushes and watch the lobsters file into the kitchen in tubs, scratching at each other with their banded claws.

It is the prize of fairytales, to rule the campers. We feel it when we stand on the banks of the lake while the sand eels are freighted away in the beaks of puffins. They fly up and off toward Nova Scotia, and we pretend it’s all our kingdom.

A woman is living in the lonely cabin behind the tennis courts. Our parents signed releases to let her in. She drinks sludgy coffee in the mornings and carries a pencil behind her ear. She eavesdrops on our campfire conversations and scribbles our names on a notepad. She’s a reporter, we’re told, and she’s here because we’re special.

She combs us apart and conducts interviews on the wide porches of the cabin at the top of the hill, her gaze traveling over the fescue past the border of sand and peat moss to the corner of the lake that’s parceled into swim lanes. We bask in her attention, watch the butterfly strokes, and answer.

She notices the stories we conceal, coaxes them up to the surface. The wine we snag when we travel into town, casing the clapboard shops painted in colors as drowsy as their keepers. The girls from the wrong cities, Detroit and Camden, whose applications disappear with the potato peelings.

The reporter learns to sit Indian style. We teach her our motto and the Wanakuk song, and when we sing, she slips a hand into her pocket. We know about the matchstick recorder. We’ve seen her playing our voices back after dark.

There is a day when our parents come to visit. The reporter takes note of the way we hug. She wants to know who they’re calling when they pace up and down the path, where they purchased their suits, and if they held us when we were sick.

She leaves before the contest. We send her away with a woven bracelet, teary-eyed at the absence of her long shadow stretching ahead of ours. We don’t understand why she’d miss the pinnacle of the summer. Why she doesn’t stay to watch us crown our captains.

Her story is published two weeks before the contest. We overhear our leaders whispering about the podcast and coach one of the little girls through the backdoor of the counselor cabin. On hands and knees, she pockets a phone and steals it away to the junior bunks where we snicker and hide.

The twelve of us remember sleeping here the summer we met. The beds are shorter and paper stars dangle from the ceiling. The little girls bundle up in blankets from home and lean against the cubbies to listen.

We hunt for the podcast and discover our names in the description, all twelve. When we tap the arrow, the number of listeners rolls past six digits. We giggle at our fame.

The reporter has a graveled voice. She whispers into the microphone, and we imagine the flicker of a campfire on her cavernous cheeks. She talks about Maine, places us on a map. Our knees ache on the cedar floor, but we’re afraid to move, afraid to miss a syllable. She recalls the dinner we shared around an oval table, buttered lobster and raspberry salad, the seeds sticking in our teeth.

She knows things we never told her. About our gated neighborhoods back home and the cars we drive, Porsches and Bentleys parked under oak trees as old as our money.

The little girls doze off and feather into side conversations, their attention lost in the drone of the reporter’s voice, but we lean into the story, necks turning pink, hands creeping up to our shoulders. We learn new things about ourselves. That our camp tuition is steeper than a year at a state school. That we’re ugly when we cry.

The contest, we discover, is a joke. It’s how we find meaning in our easy, empty stretches of time. We should be helping others, learning the weight of a dime. Instead, we practice skills that will be nothing more than cocktail conversations.

We’ve never been sad at Wanakuk. We’ve never judged the faces of our sisters, but now, we wonder if, deep down, we’re damaged.

We avoid each other until the contest, kayaking alone to the center of the lake and watching salmon flash under the surface. When it’s time for the ceremony, we choose not to smile. We turn our marshmallows on broken sticks and focus on the flames.

The reporter’s voice is a ghost in our ears. We question the camp spirit tugging at our hearts. We blush at the organic graham crackers snapping in our hands. The captains’ sashes wait at the edge of the circle, crimson and ivory. We resent the way they shine in the firelight. But we crave them underneath.

 

Katie Bernet
Katie Bernet (26) lives in Dallas, Texas, where she writes young adult novels and the occasional poem. She’s an active member of the DFW Writers Workshop, an advertising copywriter, and a dance enthusiast. You can find her on Instagram @katiebernet.

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