Murder class was the new thing, but of course they didn’t call it that. They called it Specialised Life Skills for Girls and it happened on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Last year it was in the afternoons, but someone threw up everywhere when they showed the first video, the one titled Decapitation by Bear Trap! Mrs Jones made her clean it up in front of everyone and shifted class to before lunch.
This quickly became legend – the girl’s French fries partially combined with strawberry milkshake so that it looked like brains, and she wept as she pushed it around the floor. The other girls just lifted their feet and hissed.
Every class needed someone to be the weak one. When Mrs Jones dimmed the lights, I didn’t feel excitement, I didn’t get out my notebook to take notes, the way a few of the others did. I reminded myself that I had eyelids, that I could use them.
My mother wouldn’t talk about her time in the forest. It’s rude to ask, she’d say. She wore the tooth underneath her other necklaces, and never fidgeted with it.
Does it work? I wanted to ask her, looking at it, the talisman, but I knew she wouldn’t answer that either. I remembered the man in the cinema last year who had sat next to me, hand levitating up from his side until it landed on my thigh as though he had no control over it. I’d gulped a lungful of iced Coke and blundered from my seat, missed the end of the film. I remembered also the car following me home from school just weeks ago and the high-pitch fear, because I didn’t have my talisman yet. All my survivals so far centred on the fact that I was the lankiest runner, that I did cross-country, had legs that could piston me out of situations. These legs would be helpful to me in the forest, but without my talisman I was only ever one trip away from the terrible thing, and there was nothing I could do about it.
After the first class, we were allowed a rest break. I gathered with Jane, Lucy and Emily on a bench. Their names were pieces of sugar, and I hated them all but couldn’t admit it. Jane balanced herself on the top of the bench with her feet planted on the seat so that we had to sit around her legs, contort our bodies. She lit a cigarette as she spoke down to us.
‘I’m not going to use a fucking bear trap,’ she was saying. She took a drag and passed it to Lucy. ‘I don’t know what I’ll do yet, but I want to be more involved.’
‘Gun?’ Lucy suggested, passing it on to Emily.
‘No, I don’t think so,’ Jane said, thoughtfully. ‘Maybe I’ll strangle.’
‘It’s a collaborative effort,’ I pointed out, the cigarette finally coming to me. ‘It’s teamwork. It’s not all about you.’
‘You can hold him down while I strangle, then,’ she told me, benevolent, irritated. ‘You can do that. We’ll take a limb each.’
‘What would you do?’ Lucy asked me. I looked at her sharp teeth and pretended to think about it. They were watching me. I knew they were upset that I had been placed in their group, that the qualities that made me a good friend were also the things that might get us killed in the forest, so I tried to be doubly enthusiastic.
‘Knife,’ I told them. Though truthfully, my answer would have been Nothing or Anything I don’t have to see, or Please don’t make me do it. But I thought I could probably handle knife, if it came to that – I could tie him up and hum and leave him to bleed out, return to him after I had finished a small, measured amount of crying.
I watched Jane’s downturned mouth purse smoke and remembered how I’d once seen her crush a cat-felled sparrow under her heel. I had made it a nest of scraps, soft grass. Its heart had beat against my thumb like a grasshopper. My mistake was making the nest on the ground. Don’t prolong the inevitable, loser, she told me afterwards.
So I didn’t feel surprised when at the start of the next class Mrs Jones announced Jane as the ringleader for our small group. She went to the front of the room next to the other ringleaders and they smiled at each other. Lucy or Emily, I couldn’t tell which, kicked the back of my heel in a way that might have been designed to reassure me.
At my locker, Adam was waiting for me with a pile of folders in his arms.
‘Look, it’s your boyfriend,’ whispered Emily into my ear. I shook my head.
He put a hand up, an invitation to mine, but I couldn’t be seen touching him in public. He put it away. The girls gathered around us and stared him down. It could have been protectiveness.
‘Well,’ he said, wilting under their gaze, ‘I’ll be going.’ He pushed the top folder at me. ‘Thanks for letting me borrow it.’ He disappeared into the swarm.
‘I heard he comes over to your house after school,’ Jane said. She raised her eyebrows. ‘Wow.’ A single syllable so loaded that it seemed about to collapse in on itself.
I didn’t know how to explain that Adam was a fragile guppy of a boy, by which I meant that I’d never actually seen him shirtless but you knew his insides would be visible through the skin. Heart on sleeve. Once I’d punched him on the shin and the bruise rose immediately to the surface and stayed there, lividly blue, for a fortnight. We had been friends since before I even became aware of the need for a talisman. But I had felt myself changing – a fear in my stomach, new stiffness in my limbs. It seemed feasible that he could be changing too.
We learned how to pitch tents in a circle so we’d open out in the mornings to face each other, breathe the frost air. We learned how to build a bonfire large enough to cook with but small enough to tamp out the flames in seconds should we need to disappear. We learned what to watch for. Compressed grass, how to tell this apart from grass where foxes and deer had been lying. About musk trails, camo paint, patterns of blood, how to bandage our own wounds without wincing or exclamation. How to hide our own scent.
‘Do not forget,’ Miss Jones said, ‘that you are the hunted as well as the hunting.’
‘Don’t listen to her,’ Jane told us. ‘Don’t let that dry old witch scare you.’ She had taken to carrying a Swiss army knife everywhere, whittling pieces of wood now instead of smoking.
‘Smoking is bad for your lungs,’ she told us. ‘You’re going to need to run quickly.’
We would need all our air, all our faculties, no nicotine highs or illicit alcohol. Sleep, fresh and shallow under the stars. The ground underneath a wet rush towards us and rigged traps beyond us and a man, tagged with his colours, lying in wait.
It was my birthday the week before we went into the forest. My mother and father gave me a heavy, paper-wrapped rectangle, and I knew it would be a knife before I even held it. The handle was a light, smooth wood with mother-of-pearl insets. The blade was newly sharpened. It felt, admittedly, really good in my hands. I lifted it and brought it down, experimentally.
‘Wait,’ my father said, ducking into the fridge. He cradled a watermelon like a baby. ‘Let’s go into the garden.’ We walked out and he placed the watermelon on the picnic table. The two of them stood a safe distance behind me.
The knife went through the watermelon as if it was made of butter, a wet sucking noise, almost too easy. It was fun. Juice flew everywhere. I hacked at it some more. I made a small gouge in the table, by accident, but it was my birthday and so I knew it would be forgiven. By the time I had finished, the watermelon was just pulp. My parents whooped behind me. I licked my lip, and tasted a smear of juice that had slicked itself onto my face. When I turned around, knife still raised, my father took a photo. Snap. I moved the blade through the air, slow motion. Snap.
Jane, Lucy and Emily’s arms were growing sinewy. Circuit training twice a day in the gymnasium, first thing and again after school. We collected high-protein snacks from the nurse’s office, bartering peanut-butter sandwiches and slices of ham. In what felt like every free minute, Jane and the other ringleaders competed to see how many press-ups they could do before collapsing. Nobody could beat Jane.
We had been given daily exercises to do at home, too. Without asking me, my father installed a pull-up bar above the door of my bedroom, so I knew he was afraid. I couldn’t even do one under my own steam, the muscle refusing to take. Adam tactfully let me stand on his back one evening after we did our homework, and I finally managed one pull-up, two, but not a third.
He had started to bring me his father’s hunting magazines. The centrefold was a bearded man holding up a deer, the back legs trailing on the ground. I tried to think about whether I would rather kill a man or a deer and honestly I couldn’t choose, which made me feel bad, but men didn’t have the velvet-soft pelt at the back of their necks and a deer had never looked at me in a way that said they were thinking of me inside-out, of how I’d look if I was crying or motionless or asking them very gently not to do anything to me.
Adam was safe to be alone with, I knew. We had pressed our dry lips together only once, leaving the door of my room open at all times. Once I had my talisman, I could be bolder. I could lock the door against my parents or even do my homework at his house, wearing short sleeves, something exposing my clavicle.
‘Maybe I could make a talisman out of a mould,’ I suggested one evening. I was desperate to think of an alternative by then, the date drawing closer. Adam was sprawled on the carpet and I could look down on him from the bed. ‘I could use your mouth. The plastic they use at the dentist.’
‘My teeth aren’t big enough,’ he said. ‘Watch. Give me your arm.’
I extended my arm and he bit very lightly, just enough to leave an imprint. I watched the small dents vanish almost instantly.
Our families saw us off from the edge of the forest, waving colourful banners that wished us luck, many capital letters, many exclamation marks. Nobody made any noise because to do so would have been to signal our arrival and weaken our chances. I did notice that there were tears rolling down the cheeks of some, including my own mother. Some parents were pumping their fists into the air. Their teenagers could do pull-ups, I was sure of it. We lost the other groups quickly.
Once base camp was established we broke to take a quick cereal bar break, sitting on the damp grass. Jane took the opportunity to discuss strategy, for she had already sized up the opportunities of the place, where we could gain ground and lose it. There was a large tree nearby, from which we would take it in turns to watch for him. The men of the forest no longer had names. If we spotted him, our own man, we must quietly alert each other. We should move gracefully and without fear, we should not disturb the leaves. They could move faster than we thought.
When it was my turn on watch, I prayed not to see him. I looked through the binoculars and hoped he knew to stay away. But the men in the forest, they couldn’t stay away. They flung themselves at disaster. The disaster was us. If a friend was hurt, even though I hated the sugar-named girls, I would not be able to live with myself – I knew this. So I watched incredibly carefully. My vision started to fade at the edges; I jumped at nothing.
Mrs Jones had kept me back after class once, the other girls craning their necks to see what I had done wrong. I had done nothing wrong. No notes, no cheating. I had memorised the list of weak areas on a man’s body and demonstrated my reflexes. I had learned eleven ways to tie a knot.
‘Your heart isn’t in it,’ Mrs Jones told me. ‘Your heart is tartare.’ She paused. ‘It needs to be a well-done steak. Overdone.’ I could tell she had said this before.
‘Make your heart an overdone steak and it won’t be eaten,’ she told me. I stared at the open pores on her nose. Her talisman was big, a deep root on the tooth. It must have been difficult to extract.
‘You can eat an overdone steak,’ I pointed out despite myself. Her nostrils flared.
‘With difficulty,’ she told me. ‘It’s not a pleasure.’ She paused for dramatic effect. ‘If you’re going to be consumed, make the one doing the consuming work for it,’ she told me. ‘Make it hurt for them.’
‘I’ll try,’ I told her. I imagined ripping out my heart and placing it under the grill until it was ridged with charcoal.
No sightings by the end of the first day. Jane was restless; she wanted to organise a patrol for first light. Someone had to be left to guard the camp, and everyone’s eyes swivelled to me over the tiny fire. If I was going to be known for lacking bloodthirstiness, so be it. We divvied the night up into portions with a minimum of squabbling.
The second they left in the morning I shimmied up the tree, hiding myself in the leaves. Occasionally I saw a ripple in the greenery on the ground, but it was always a coiled-tight girl. Until I saw a flash of yellow, and my hands around the bough were tight as if it was a throat, but our man was tagged with magenta, which Jane had been happy with because even I couldn’t miss magenta. I watched the flare of colour melt back into the foliage.
But then, hours later, my attention wavering – magenta. A slip of it below me. I didn’t breathe. I was hidden well and I had my knife ready, custom-made holder at my hip, and my face was smeared with dirt.
He walked from tent to tent, opening them but not entering. The magenta was a flag pinned to his back. His filthy jeans hung off his body. He trembled. What a world. Stab him in the eye if he comes up after you, my brain told me, and I was grateful and horrified at my survival instinct. I looked at where he shambled and told myself that even though he looked like a human man he was not actually a human man, which made him an animal with something fundamentally wild and broken inside him, whereas I was a young human girl with my whole life ahead of me. It was important to make the distinction.
‘The men will beg you not to do it,’ Mrs Jones had told us.
Harden your hearts.
‘Remember that it’s kill or be killed,’ she continued.
Hunter and hunted.
‘What will you say when they beg you not to do it?’ she asked us.
Incantation to all the women who’ve been hurt that you know of, directly or indirectly. Incantation against violence. Revenge incantation.
‘What will you not say?’
When they returned I told them he had found our camp. I added, generously, that I had wanted us to kill him together, but I included the part where I considered stabbing him in the eye to show them I had what it took. Nobody high-fived me.
Emily went to analyse his tracks. She came back with nothing concrete. He had fudged them, rolled around like a fox. We would wait, everyone concluded, for him to come back. We would draw him in with our girlishness. Jane set up complicated traps with ropes tied to the trees around us, foliage obscuring the loops. The light was dying and we helped her with our new knowledge. My hands knew survival even if my heart didn’t. When the traps were ready we sprayed the one bottle of perfume we had been allowed around the perimeter. Jane instructed us to let out high-pitched laughs, again and again.
In the night, I rolled out of a light sleep and into the feel of something brushing against my tent. I froze in position. I had been sleeping with my knife in my hand, the cover on. I slid it out and thought about the watermelon. The brush came again; the side of my tent bulged as a body moved past it.
Then a loud rushing noise, the scream of a man like a fox, and I could hear him being pulled up by the rope. It was designed to loop him by the ankle and suspend him. The ankle would likely break, but that would be the least of his troubles. Stunned, I listened to the rope’s swing.
We surrounded him. The rope had worked perfectly. His eyes were stark. He had been living on berries and roots for some time by the looks of things, he was what Mrs Jones called an evader. Jane whooped.
‘We’ve got him,’ she told us with satisfaction. ‘Let’s finish the job.’
The night before we went into the forest Adam had come over and tried to talk about what I was going to do, and I hadn’t let him, I had pressed my palms to my ears and sung out loud. In the end I had said the cruellest thing I could think of: You might yet end up a man banished to the forest.
I had regretted it immediately. Adam wasn’t that sort of boy and wouldn’t be that sort of man, but at the same time I knew somewhere inside me that all men were that sort of man, that there was no tapping them like a bad egg, looking for the weak spot. There was no telling who would grow up to be sent howling into the foliage, knees and palms wet with dirt.
He had walked out, but not before flashing me a look that was fear of me and what I was capable of, but also fear of himself, for the ravenous man he thought might be locked somewhere inside him. Perhaps when you became wild there was no real change, it had just been latent in you, unnoticed even, until the day someone looked at you and pointed and said Wait a minute –, and I thought that would be worse, to have been terrible all your life but not to have known, to be such a surprise to yourself.
One more step before we could get our talisman. It happened in the darkness, and we each took a limb, after we cut him down and he hit the ground too hard. His hands swiped at us, hopelessly. There was no wind or fight left in him. I sat on his left leg and waited for him to go limp.
I counted to distract myself, thought about the tooth on its chain and how we were so close, and by three hundred I was somehow standing, we were somehow dragging him to the centre of the camp. We were done, and I hadn’t even needed my knife. I had thought the killing would be the hardest part, and felt alarmed that it was not.
We packed everything by torchlight, no reason to stay longer than we needed. I took great care not to move my torch beam over him. Jane planted a magenta flag next to him in the dirt, and we left him there to be collected. It took us a couple of hours to get back to the border, and we saw nobody. The warden was smoking a joint, a small glow in the dark that he stubbed out immediately. He called our parents.
Mine were the first to arrive. My father turned up the radio to cover my secret crying.
‘I’ll go and do it for you tomorrow,’ he told me in the car. ‘I’ll get your talisman.’
Thank you, I whispered, and when he was unlocking the front door I threw up in the flower bed. I was glad that the neighbours were all asleep and couldn’t see my hushed homecoming, strings of bile against the tulips as opposed to drapes around my shoulders, an ice-cream cake in the shape of a tooth.
I knew that Jane would go and get her own talisman, that there was a certain kind of teenage girl who would relish not just the killing but the trophy-taking, choosing a tooth and using the pliers herself.
Then there were girls who would get their fathers to do it, the men waiting in line because you let the girls go first, the bravest girls, girls comparing bloody molars in the palm of their hands, the men laid out in rows, already forgotten. By the time the fathers got their turn the worst teeth were left but they were still a talisman, they would still ward off disaster, they would still tell a man that the girl had been into the forest and come out a more capable person, or at least alive.
When the talisman arrived in a box from the jewellers, on a fine golden string, I put it on and felt no different. But I repelled humans away from me. I resumed my dry kisses against Adam’s mouth but he began to avoid me, and who could blame him, so I focused my attention back on cross-country.
I could run alone now, any time of day. Men swerved away from my body. The talisman bumped over my heart with every footstep, and the trees lining my running route reminded me of the quiet of that night, of how the man hadn’t made a sound. Emily had met my eyes right at the end. I had been looking away, up at the fuzz of the solar system, but she had sought my gaze. I had returned it for a short time. She had taken the right leg, her whole weight on the shin, hands pressing the knees to the ground. I had expected him to come back to life, but we had stood there in a row with the air around us, and my heart had doubled in size for a second and then impacted back in as Jane covered his face with the allocated cloth bag, and we had waited for five minutes more than we had to just to be sure.
I was grateful to her, very grateful. I knew the girls would no longer be my friends. Somewhere in the distance we had heard a different group of girls whooping but we were silent, we were watching Jane for our next cue, and she had paused. I could already see her with her talisman, a canine skilfully extracted, a thing she had earned. She had nailed it, survival. I pictured her anger nestled tight in her chest, a fist of brilliant light, and closed my eyes.
Photograph © Mandee Carter