A knife has many uses in the wilderness. I’ve taken Jamie’s knife from her, the weight of it added to mine in my pocket every day, the weight of trust hitting my leg, of no new scars.
She is my student on a month-long wilderness expedition. Our goals are to develop leadership skills, provide opportunities for reflection and growth, travel 150 miles by foot and canoe, and return everyone to their families safely. On the sixth day of the trip, another student tells my co-instructor and me that Jamie has both snuck a pocket knife on the trip, and told her teammate about her history of cutting. So it becomes my job, standing together on a trail slightly removed from the campsite, to ask Jamie for her knife. I tell her I, too, snuck my knife onto my expedition when I was a teenage student in our program. I ask her for the specifics of her past: where, when, under what circumstances, how recently. She cries and then confides, cutting, scratching, wrists, thighs, the past two years. I thank her and offer to carry her knife and allow her its use whenever she needs to chop vegetables or would like to whittle a stick or fillet a fish. We return to camp with the weight in my pocket doubled.
I fill my co-instructor in on the details in our tent when they’re all asleep. We take notes, share a late-night candy bar, and make sure we find something to laugh about before falling asleep. Ours is no usual pairing of instructors. He tells me on day four that he loves me, and I’m not sure what he means. In time, which we have plenty of during the expedition, we come to understand it means unquestioning support in the face of each day’s challenges, mentorship without judgment as we each teach the other, wrestling to see who can get out of the tent first every morning, and trail mix shared from the same bandana serving as a bowl. We develop a silent physicality that thrills and terrifies me. The wilderness, it turns out, is full of opportunities to touch, as he hands me a heavy pack, offers me berries he’s picked, holds me when I admit frustration at my mistakes, and consistently stands closer to me than the expanse of the wilderness necessitates.
A week after I take Jamie’s knife, we leave the students, each to their own rock around the perimeter of the lake for three nights alone in the wilderness. It’s a space we’ll hold and leave theirs as much as possible, leaving the two of us frighteningly close in the center of the tent. Their solo will be our duo, days lingering with only each other for company, a shared privacy otherwise non-existent on the expedition.
Sharp rocks, I warn him. The weight in my pocket will not protect her wrists from sharp rocks. When we check on each student, we’ll look at their bug bites, make sure they’re not scratching and getting infected. We’ll look at their feet, see how their blisters from the hiking portion of the trip are recovering, see how they’re adjusting to the constantly wet boots from loading and unloading canoes. And as we do these things, we won’t talk about the fact that we’re checking for cuts, scratches, lacerations, wounds. If it’s going to happen, solo is a time when it’s likely, three days without distraction from yourself, your demons, sharp rocks. The geology is a risk I cannot remove, threatening wounds my first aid kit can bandage but only on the surface.
I’ve carried my knife since I got it on my ninth birthday, and I have no scars to show for it. But theirs, my students with their hairthin lines mapping out their paths to adulthood, they frighten me in a nearness, a familiar weight, the presence of the knife.
My co-instructor’s beauty also frightens me. He stands above me fresh out of the lake with the sun behind him.
I stare and feel the weight of the knives. If I don’t use them now, I’ll use them later. As separating flesh from bone and peeling back skin filleting our fish
I’ll slide the tip of my knife into our language, to cut intimacy from sex
physicality from romance
map out a path for our future hairthin as the scars
an edge to walk sharp as the blade
and try to persuade
and with the bluntness of a riverworn rock he’ll disagree
fail to see
the knife will slip
my hands will bleed
and he’ll look away
Renee Igo raises sheep in Maine and leads canoe trips in Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Contrary Magazine and Permafrost Magazine.