The Company of Wolves

by C. D. Lee

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Chapter Two

"Waltzing With Bears"

"Through leafy alleys
Of verdurous valleys
With merry sallies
Singing their chant."
- Sir Walter Scott


Eden on the phone

I took the letter back and read it carefully myself. It turned out to be an invitation to something called "the annual parent-child camping trip." Each year, it seemed, a select group of parents were invited to bring their children to a four-day weekend of group education in one of the state forests. Several teachers would accompany the excursion and there would be lectures, discussions, games, and nature-trail activities.

The letter went on to explain that this year the invited families were being selected from among "parents of significant accomplishment," especially persons whose work had so far prevented them from being very active in their children's school experience.

That latter line meant that beneath all the slick language the letter was really an indictment of every parent who received it. I think the insinuation stung me all the sharper because I couldn't help but feel guilty about the previous year. But I had had a rough time of it. What was the school's excuse? Considering Gus' English-language problems, it seemed like Gus's teachers had not been "very active" themselves.

But something seemed vaguely wrong. What was this about me being a "significantly accomplished" member of the parental community? As far as the school district knew, Eden Blake was only a low-level analyst for a sleazy federal spy organization -- a job, by the way, which was a marked improvement over the place where I'd started Eden Blake's work experience -- a catalog company where she was a phone-order-taker!

"Gus, this is dated a month ago," I addressed the boy. "When did they give it to you?"

"Sorry, Mom; I forgot that I was carrying it around. I only remembered it when my teacher asked me about it today."

"Do you really want to go to this camp?"

"I guess it could be fun," Gus replied with noticeable ambivalence. Then again, nothing outside of heavy-combat video-gaming ever imbued August Blake Junior with detectable excitement.

"Do you think you'd like the idea of roughing it outdoors?" I asked, suddenly gripped by a new idea.

He only shrugged, which I took as a positive gesture.

Gus had always seemed like a tv-watching, Cheez-O-munching, video-game playing layabout, the sort of boy that adults would have called a "house plant" a century ago. The world outside seemed to hold no fascination for him which I suspected was a whole lot of his problem.

"Gus, have you even thought of joining the Boy Scouts?" I asked.

He shifted as if something didn't fit well. "Mr. Decker says he doesn't like the Boy Scouts."

"Mr. Decker sounds like a blockhead," I muttered. "Say, isn't he the gym teacher who almost got your district sued last year?"

"No, that was Mr. Brown," replied Gus.

"Then Decker must be the one who can't teach kids to read?"

"Yeah, that's him."

Gus was being wasted where he was, I decided. He needed more structure -- a little discipline, some old-fashioned values, some challenge to compete and excel. He needed to know that all good things in life didn't come from a microchip.

I knew that the divorce had been especially hard for him, as it often is with children. Boys need fathers; no one knows that better than me. I'd experienced growing up with a father cold and distant, one who -- until the end of his life -- had barely acknowledged that I existed. Fortunately, I had had an uncle who was a completely different sort. He taught me to ride, to use the sword and the bow, to face responsibilities like a man, and more or less acted like my personal Scout master. A good Scout master could partially make up for an absentee pop and I wanted Gus to have the same chance I'd had.

Also, it wasn't good that an eleven-year-old didn't have more buddies. The boys he hung with seemed to relate to him on a very superficial level. Then again, I had heard about the deep interpersonal bonding that went on inside Boy Scout troops. Some of the fellows Gus could meet there might become his friends for life.

"I think the Boy Scouts are a pretty fine outfit," I said. "Is Decker really such a smart man?"

Gus frowned. "I don't know. Most of the guys call him Butt-Head Burt. But the Cub Scouts are like army, aren't they? Don't they make you get up early?"

"Come on, Gus, getting up early can be as much fun as staying up late! Early mornings in the woods are gorgeous. The air is sweet, the birds are singing. All the animals that you'll never see otherwise are up and around looking for food. And think about how much fun you'd have sleeping in a tent in a forest, wearing a uniform, and carrying a big knife on your belt."

He looked genuinely interested. Who says I don't know how to talk to little boys?

I pressed my luck. "Wouldn't you like to drink from a canteen, and put raw meat into a fire you built yourself by rubbing two sticks together -- just like an Indian? Mr. Decker likes Indians, I bet."

"Yeah, he does, but he calls them Native Americans."

I smiled inwardly. Indians, or "Native Americans" as they are called in the current parlance, was a subject on which I could have taken Mr. Decker to school -- having been several different Indians myself over the last few centuries. In fact, I'd been an Indian long before Columbus discovered America.

"Are you going to take Gus to camp, Mommy?" Evie asked.

I glanced at my daughter, unsure what to reply. I was so busy -- earning a living, managing a family, spying on Aladdin, fighting evil, learning magic. . . .

It was all a matter of priorities, I supposed.

Okay, Lukasz, stand back and take stock, I told myself.

What really mattered most? People called me a super hero. Big deal. That's what I do in my spare time, not who I am. It's easy to make oneself feel important in the eyes of strangers while neglecting the very people who depended upon one every day. However you cut it, caring about an abstract mankind while shying away from flesh-and-blood relationships only amounted to self-aggrandizement.

In the end, of course, there could be only one answer to Evie's question.

My uncle had given me a lot of his time, acted like I was the most important being in the world to him. I think that fact always made me feel three inches taller than I really was. I'd even say that he had made me the man I whom would be for fifteen hundred years. Where I'd gone wrong during the long journey was my own fault, not his.

I had a far greater responsibility to Gus than my uncle had had to me, and I didn't have the right to let him down without making the effort to set things right.

#

As far as little boys went, Gus was neither particularly troublesome nor especially gifted -- unless the ability to rack up a fantastic score in Duke Nukem qualifies as a gift. Afterwards, when I called Mr. Storch to talk about the camping trip, all he would tell me was that Gus's very unexceptionability made him stand out to the Los Angeles Area Elementary School Teacher's Council.

Of course, that sort of illogic came straight from bird land, but when I pressed Storch for a clarification I only got a pat slogan: "It's the policy of our school never to let a child get lost in the anonymous middle." Swell.

The more Storch and I talked the less I understood. Exasperated, I brought up my son's difficulties with reading, writing, and arithmetic, and finally, in a fit of pique, went so far as to question Mr. Decker's competence as a teacher.

"Mr. Decker's performance always evaluates very well," Storch assured me. "Our teachers work wonders with children of all ability levels and every ethnic background, but they only have your child for six hours of the day. You have him for the other fifteen hours and parental input is absolutely vital in advancing a child's development. That's one reason that I hope you can come to our parent-teacher camp-out."

It occurred to me that six plus fifteen equaled twenty-one, not twenty-four. No wonder children couldn't add in Canoga Park if the members of the school administration hadn't mastered simple arithmetic either. "You've never taught mathematics, have you, Mr. Storch?" I asked with all the sweetness of a fly amanita.

"Why, no," he answered mildly. "I was a social studies instructor."

So far nothing I'd heard had given me much confidence in the Canoga Park Public School System.

"Look, Mr. Storch, I'm not finished on this subject by a long shot, but nobody can say that I'm not willing to do my part. Are you going to join us in the woods us next week?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied unctuously. "I'm the main organizer, in fact. And I'm looking forward to seeing you there."

"Yes, you can count on it! Bye," I said, hanging up the phone.

#

That Friday the bus full of parents, children, and teachers joggled over rough gravel roads until they got way back into the Sierra Nevada foothills -- where the roads took the opportunity to really misbehave. I watched the changing scenery gloomily; I had been looking forward for a long conversation with Gus en route, but the instant we boarded Gus had rushed to the rear to join a couple boys whom he knew from school. One had a laptop and soon all three were playing a noisy combat game.

So now I sat alone, forlornly thinking about nothing, not considering that the man in the seat beside me who was reading a copy of Liberal Opinion was real company.

"Isn't it terrible, the way the price of gas has gone through the ceiling?" he suddenly said in my direction.

I absently glanced his way. "Huh? Oh, yeah. We need a real energy policy in Washington. The oil cartels are leading us around by the nose." For more than a millennium and a half I never needed to worry about petty expenses, since Archimage always provided us with heavy purses and, more recently, with credit cards. But nowadays I died a little every time I had to go to the filling station.

"The worst thing is the way it affects the poor," my neighbor added.

This comment raised my eyebrow. "Why is that worse than what happens to people don't earn very much but still have to drive a long distance work?"

He shrugged. "People like them are lucky just to have a job. A lot of folks don't work but still have to buy gas. I think there should be a federal program to see that the poor have all the gas they need."

I looked at him through a cocked eye. It always seemed like there was somebody else who needed a federal program. "If the poor don't work, how much gas do they need?" I asked, trying to keep my tone pleasant. "I mean, if people have cars and places to go, we're not talking about bag ladies or winos living in packing crates. The people you're talking about are only driving around for recreation, right? If that's the case, why are beleaguered working people with families supposed to subsidize their good times?"

Mr. Liberal Opinion gave me one of those looks that said If you don't know you must be my moral inferior. Then he shifted a cold shoulder between me and him and resumed his silent reading, obviously dismissing Mrs. Blake as one of those sad cases too benighted to waste words upon -- which was just fine with me.

For the first couple hours of the trip there had been a lot of talk among the passengers about problems in their children's education, but eventually Mr. Storch silenced the exchange by suggesting a song-fest.

This idea flew like a swallow off a cliff face and the songs were soon flowing. Mostly they were standard camp fare, some as old as the California Gold Rush. Some of the tunes brought back bittersweet memories of my visits to early America.

When Storch called upon the man sitting beside me, he offered a song that all the kids loved, "Waltzing with Bears." It was cute enough, but I couldn't help thinking that "I've Been Working on the Railroad" would have better dignified a grown man and a father.

"Very good," crowed Mr. Storch at the end. "Now, isn't it your turn, Mrs. Blake?"

He was talking to me I realized and my first reaction was to demur. "No, really, I --"

"She's shy!" someone chortled.

"Come on, Mrs. Blake," a woman spoke up. "You must know a few songs. Like, everyone knows "Coming 'Round the Mountain!"

I bridled. Anyone with the nerve to wear Eden's racy wardrobe in public can't be called shy and I happen to know plenty of songs. Unlike these people, I'd really needed to learn them. In the old days everybody sang whether they had a good voice or not; there wasn't much else to do after dark during the first fourteen hundred years of my life -- especially if one eschewed drinking oneself under the table, gambling, or consorting with painted ladies -- none of which I eschewed, by the way. Nonetheless, since I seemed trapped, I decided to inject a little whimsy into this much-too-sugary feel-good festival.

"Okay," I sighed, "here's a song I learned from the radio. If anyone would like to join in, great."

There was some applause now that I was showing myself to be a good sport, and once the patter had settled down into expectant silence, I began:


"Some people think they can waltz with the bears,
Or polka with wolves or with birds in the air;
I say it's unlikely, exceedingly rare
To find a wild creatcha that's willing to meetcha,
To socialize, visit, or dance anywhere.

"So, don't go da-da-da-da-da dancing with wolves,
Wary wolves, scary wolves, hairy wolves, too.
There's nothing on you that a wolf wouldn't chew
If you went out dancing, went dancing and prancing,
If you went out dancing, went dancing with wolves.

"It wasn't that we didn't treat him okay,
It wasn't that he wasn't given his way;
Free room and board, he had nothing to pay,
But still Uncle Walter went dancing that day.

"He went da-da-da-da-da dancing with wolves,
Wary wolves, scary wolves, hairy wolves, too.
There's nothing on you that a wolf wouldn't chew
If you went out dancing, went dancing and prancing,
If you went out dancing, went dancing with wolves.

"A wolf is a creature that roams with a pack;
If cornered or hungry they're prone to attack.
I told him be careful, I begged him in fact,
But now Uncle Walter is not coming back.

"He went da-da-da-da-da dancing with wolves,
Wary wolves, scary wolves, hairy wolves, too.
There's nothing on you that a wolf wouldn't chew
If you went out dancing, went dancing and prancing,
If you went out dancing, went dancing with wolves.

"Don't go da-da-da-da-da dancing with wolves!"


Before I was finished kids were joining in the chorus. The second time through the kids were with me all the way; then, the third time, most of the parents. I couldn't tell whether any of the teachers sang since I didn't know what most of them looked like. I only know that Mr. Storch didn't open his mouth once.

That man was certainly betraying an attitude problem.

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