Photo of Swiss Army knife propped on-end with all of its tools fanned open

The Will to Survive

I planned to ask for a Swiss Army knife for my ninth birthday. It was all I needed. Our house had several acres of woods behind it, and from the moment school let out that summer I was going to take the knife and live for three months, until the day school started again, in those woods.

I kept the plan secret, assuming my parents would laugh and say, “That’s ridiculous, you’re not doing that.”

I spent my days thinking about all the swim meets, karate lessons, piano recitals, and soccer games all the other kids would have to go to—wake up early, get dressed up, pack into the minivan with a string cheese and a Capri Sun for breakfast, and rush off to this or that obligation with a bunch of other loudmouth kids.

But me, I’d wake when I wanted. Sit on a rock, whittle a stick, strip bark to weave, and stare through the endless trees between trees between trees.

If I saw a neighbor walking their dog on the trail, I’d slip beneath the ferns and wait until the collar’s jingle faded.

A big tree fell in a storm that winter, and the crater beneath its suspended root ball would make a perfect shelter. I’d use my knife to cut pine boughs and make a bed. Maybe a conical roof of boughs secured around the root ball.

Birds and squirrels were plentiful but difficult to catch. I imagined traps I could make from branches, rocks, and pinecones. I’d strip ivy vines from tree trunks for cordage.

I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to build a fire to cook what I caught. There were some burnt pits, but they were behind the high school, littered with empty bottles and crumpled cigarette packs, and the trees around them were spray-painted with penises, so I assumed fires were probably illegal.

In the absence of meat, I knew spots for huckleberries and blackberries.

There was a muddy clearing far back, almost through to the next neighborhood, where a caravan was parked and taking on moss. Next to it was a chickenwire enclosure with a couple of decaying geese. When I discovered them, one goose’s feathers were still mostly white. There was a pitchfork leaning against the cage, and I used it to stab the dead goose until its head separated from its long neck. A waste of good meat, I thought.

The person who lived in the caravan had been so close to living the dream, but never connected the dots. Imagine, keeping geese in a man-made cage when there were plenty of birds all around them! The blackberry ravine was just down the hill. Surely in the caravan they had tools to do all the jobs a Swiss Army knife could do, and they hadn’t had to waste their energy building and maintaining a shelter.

Despite these concessions and cheats, this person had failed. I pitied them.

*

I didn’t get the Swiss Army knife for my birthday that year.

I mentally prepared myself every spring to receive that multifaceted key to my survivalist dream, but spent every summer without it resigned to my domestic existence.

By the time I got it for my thirteenth birthday, years of rain had filled in the root ball pit. My perfect shelter was ruined.

In one of the places I’d scouted, sitting on a fallen tree, I used my new knife to whittle a stick into a spear. I got it sharp enough to draw a bead of blood from my fingertip.


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8 Comments

  1. jim ilika

    This is a wonderful glimpse of an innocent sustained fantasy from your childhood. Or perhaps, imagined from your childhood. I think when children or really, anyone, spends time thinking out the possible needs and rewards of surviving in the wild that it can help ground that person in our place in nature and the benefits and costs of civilization. I am less impressed by adults who spend their spare time building bug out bags, outfitting bunkers, and endlessly buying guns. Thank you Zac.

    1. Zachary Dillon

      I’m glad this resonated with you, Jim! Our place in nature, and the blind spots that come with these fantasies, are important to consider. And yeah, bunkers and guns are also indicative of an especially large blind spot. Thanks for reading!

      1. jim ilika

        I don’t know if I ever mentioned this to you Zac, so be patient if I repeat myself. In the early 80’s, when I was choosing a thesis topic in my Masters program, I proposed trying to do personality inventories on members of survivalist communities (as in what kind of people believe this shit). My advisor dismissed it as a frivolous idea. What a dick. I wonder what he thinks now.

  2. tgg168

    Good up to the dinkus. Nice, tight sentences with strong dark imagery. Consistent as well, the voice didn’t waver. That’s your natural voice.

    The twist didn’t work.

    Notable points:

    It was all I needed. – Work that into foreshadowing.

    swim meets, karate lessons, piano recitals, and soccer games – Don’t be afraid to run down the rabbit hole.

    Sit on a rock, whittle a stick, strip bark to weave, and stare through the endless trees between trees between trees. – Nice. Clean.

    wait until the collar’s jingle faded. – Again, nice. Clean.

    Suggestion – A big tree fell in a storm – What kind of tree. Take an extra sentence to describe an old oak, or a dogwood that’s grown twisted, as if in pain, since the crucifixion of Jesus. (leave that crumb for the readers. The legend is that it grew straight and tall until it was fastened into a cross by the romans. It was his blood from the spikes that soured the wood.

    Suggestion. I imagined traps I could make from branches. – Cut word count. I imagined traps made from …

    In the absence of meat, I knew spots for huckleberries and blackberries. – Good. Short, clean. This is your voice. Do more of this. Perhaps toss in an extra tidbit at the end to follow through on the idea of food gathering, and a sound at the same time, such as the croaking of frogs – which means meat.

    Sentence and paragraph structure, as well as content have improved. Suggest some atmospheres. Perhaps at the point of whittling wood, the smell of pine and slicing a finger. Then describe the blood mixing with the slender strands of white marrow under the bark.

    Overall, the last two pieces posted, there is improvement. Notable improvement. Particularly on the subject matter and the voicing.

    Final suggestions are to run down a rabbit hole occasionally to take the reader out of breath. Then give them a few short sentences to recover. Much like a saxophone player. Let the readers ear relax for a moment another barrage. Detail some history in the descriptions, as I’ve noted with the tree. Work on the motivation of the character. Even in a short piece, drop a crumb at the start as to why the MC wants the knife. It’s hinted, but hint deeper. Make the reader dig.

    Keep it up.

    od

    1. Zachary Dillon

      Thank you for this thorough feedback. I’m not sure what you mean by “the twist.” I understand everyone’s read of a story is subjective, but I don’t think of this story as having a twist.

      1. tgg168

        So does he want her, or does he just want to protect the idea of her? Also, he didn’t know her before he arrived, and he seems ambivalent about writing—a goal he was given by someone else. So what is he seeking for himself? He’s allowed to be numb and lost, but he still has to somehow be those things “with purpose.”

        I want to commend you on your reading skills.

        Some of those questions are answered in the 9k posting that’s awaiting your lambasting.

        In the meantime Zach, focus on the positive things I’ve noted, don’t dwell on the misinterpretations. Every critique is valuable in some way or another. In this case, the twist didn’t work for me. It may work for you, or others, but not for me. Put yourself in the readers mind that disagrees and try to understand why. What was it you could have noted differently to capture that reader? Or, are you even interested in capturing that reader to begin with?

        We aren’t going to please everyone, all the time, with our writing. I don’t try. I know most people are going to hate my work. Let them.

        You’re one of the few people on the site that shows promise.

        My closing comment was ‘keep it up.’ Focus on that.

        od

        1. Zachary Dillon

          I agree that every critique is valuable in some way, but sometimes more information increases that value. I can’t force you to explain what you mean by “the twist,” so in this case “putting myself in the reader’s mind” is to entertain the infinite. But thanks for reading, anyway!

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