They came over the hill like a parade, skipping and jumping to the rhythmic stamp of their small feet on the earth. Their days were spent flitting in and out of the old wooden cabin at the peak of the hill for meals, showers, an afternoon game of kickball. They were The Lost Boys, drunk on youth and happiness, wrestling each other like cubs and then, in the same breath, tumbling into each other’s arms in peals of laughter. They often picked through the brambles that rolled down the side of the hill to find the tart blackberries and raspberries and stain their mouths and hands with the sweet juices hidden from them like secrets, like tiny wild jewels.
When at last they reached the top of the hill, they heard a soft rustling from the depths of the bushes.
“Holy shit,” one of them said, “a skunk.”
And then they were all there, attentive and silent in the beating sun, a half-moon formation, staring from a safe distance at the animal.
It stood inside a trap: a large, gridded wire cage glinting in the sunlight beneath the shadowy trees. And inside, the skunk (lured by tasty promises, kept in by the triggered door falling shut, a guillotine of freedom). Its fur was shiny, its glistening nose a large dewdrop in the center of its pointed face, its coal fur only made more alluring by the dash of white down its back. It tottered in stunted circles inside, shuffling round and round, snuffling with its pointed snout, and rocking on its tender paws.
The boys stood together, their sticky skin breathing in the thick air. Tall blades of grass tickled their calves; sleepy mosquitoes drifted in and out of their ears. The earth was soft with the wetness of the summer.
One of the boys crept closer and closer to the skunk, pulled by intrigue, its magnetism, some undefinable attraction to the variations in its shifting body. He stepped slowly, recalling myths from the humid New Hampshire forests accompanied by flashlights and loud voices, thinking of the tomato baths and lingering smells of late night walks down wooded paths.
“Don’t be such a pussy!” said one of the boys from the crowd. He picked up a small rock at his feet and threw it sharply at the trap, but the rock fell short of the cage and the firmament remained. The skunk looked at the rock then fixed its gaze on the boys, silently reproaching, and they looked back, the reflection of distant longing in their eyes.
They named the skunk Daphne. After all, beneath her mound of fur, wasn’t there a warm torso, soft curves, a beating heart?
They began to bring her food, nudging soft crusts cut off their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches towards her crate with a stick, pushing cold pieces of pizza between the bars. They watched with pleasure as her pink tongue pushed between her lips, her long eyelashes batting lugubriously at them as she nibbled on morsels stolen from the dining hall.
Some of them shared secrets with her. Jonathan snuck out one morning to show her his damp armpit, where three thin hairs poked out of the surface of his skin. Seth drew portraits of her in a little, black notebook he carried around in the pocket of his cargo shorts. And Adam collected a few of her fallen tufts of fur, blown out of her cage by the wind, and kept them in a tiny jar he wore around his neck. Within days they’d forgotten their usual crushes, the Hannah’s and Samantha’s, their pangs of adolescent longing, all for a single name that pulsed like blood within each of them. Daphne. Daphne. Daphne.
Together, they plotted escape, sitting on each other’s beds during flashlight time, waiting until their counselors were asleep to whisper plans into waiting ears and to listen to the susurrations carried into the un-paned cabin windows imagining that with them they brought the gentle breath of Daphne, their moonlit princess, peacefully asleep among the tangled berries.
The night they planned to free Daphne, a gibbous moon hung blithely in the sky. Bathed in the silvery light, sheathed in their pajamas and sweatshirts, they looked like knights. The spangled sky winked down at them from above their heads. They left their cabin in a single file line, closed the creaky door behind them, and then continued down the hill, pushing through the bushes and brambles, stomping their way to the cold, metal cage in which Daphne lay.
They halted uneasily the moment they were close enough to see her. Her fur, once so bright and rippling, was now a dull grey, a muddy white, like dirtied snow. She lay, not on her stomach with her paws folded angelically beneath her chin, but on her back, tiny hands pointing towards the darkness of the night. Their Daphne lay dead in her chamber.
Andrew was the first to cry, a wounded howling that pierced the dusky night. The other boys joined in, moving towards Daphne’s cage, unlatching it, and lifting her body into the freedom of the bright air. They carried her up the hill, howling and whimpering, the tallest of them holding her high above their heads, a sacrifice to the wind, and when they were done climbing the hill she was gone, carried away like a specter or apparition.
And they found that their bodies were suddenly closer to the ground, that they were walking not on two legs, but on four. They found that they could smell in a new way, see in a new way, that black and white fur covered them fully and that everything was bright and that everything was beautiful. They padded away into the pressing darkness, each going in his own direction back down the hill, perhaps to eat a worm or a leaf, or to bury his nose into the wet ground and breath in the ancient scents of the fertile earth.