The First Time I Ever Used the Path

fiction by Charlotte Van Ryn | winner of the Blodwyn Memorial Prize in fiction, sponsored by BookThug


I asked him if he’d ever killed anybody; he said focus Charley. I told him everything I knew, told it to him straight. He was probably using mind-reading technologies, so I knew I couldn’t tell him the slightest of white lies like I usually do. Which is too bad because I’m the sneakiest liar in all of White Oak.


Did you know her? he asked.

Yes I said, in a sort of sneaky way I knew her.

How do you mean? he asked.

She lives in the middle of the forest where I do my finest lurking, I said. I live on the edge of town, so I have the whole forest to myself except for Mrs. Williams. Her cottage has a yard and a dirt path, but I am an adventurer so I don’t use paths.

Did she know you were spying on her? Did you ever talk to her? he asked.

No and no I said.

What was she doing when you spied on her? he asked. Well, I said, she was like an animal. Sometimes she was doing boring things, sometimes she was doing wild things. I don’t understand much of what she does.  She moved like an animal, like she was always scared of something — I don’t know from what because she is a human and we are on the top of the food chain — but she was always waiting for something to come out of the trees.


Sometimes she would garden but when she did she would always pause and look up. Sometimes it looked like she forgot what she was doing and would stop. Sometimes she would come out and rip all of the plants out of the garden and chuck them across the lawn. Her eyes were always shiny. She’d make tea every day and when the weather was good she would sit on her porch with it, but I never once saw her take a sip. She would stare into the forest; she wasn’t looking at me, she wasn’t looking at anything. Most of the time her mouth was moving but I couldn’t hear any sound come out. Usually she’d toss her tea into the flowers. I understood her in some way though. We are both hybrids of the animal kingdom, that’s why I watched over her.


Did you ever speak to her? he asked.

I had nothing to say, I said. I was her silent protector.

But you watched her a lot? he said.

Yes, all the time, I said, almost every day when school got let out. Every day except for Sundays, which is always church and chores and church and chores and church.

Did you ever go into her house? he said.

No, I never got too close because my cover would be blown, you know. There is a tree lying on its back by the lawn, that was my hiding spot. It was my best job. I’ve been watching her for months really, ever since she moved in.

Do you know why she moved into the cabin? he said.

Duh I said, everyone knows that. She used to live in the town beside the hardware store. Mr. Williams moved away when their daughter Aurelia died. I knew Aurelia sort of. She was in the big school, I’m still in the small school. I think I liked her because of puberty. Anyways I never talked to her.


So, he said, writing on his notepad, probably a special issued secret decoder notepad, tell me what happened to you today, from the time you woke up until now.

Are you in the FBI? I asked.

No Charley I’m not, he said — but I knew he was lying.

I woke up earlier than my parents, just like every other Saturday. I did my stretches and changed into the army pants Uncle Gabe got me from New York. I went into the kitchen and found that Mom had got the hot dogs I wanted, they were in the freezer. So obviously the day was going pretty well so far. I ate one frozen and put two more in the side pocket of my pants, it’s the only one with buttons — I move around a lot and need them to be secure. I put my boots on and a t-shirt and was in the forest quick. There are lots of terrible, dangerous things in that forest, that’s why I have to go in every day. Nobody goes in there, that’s why they don’t believe me when I tell them all about the battles I’ve won. I can’t believe Mrs. Williams can live right in the forest every day, it’s scary. I would never go there at night. I’m scared even in the day time but I have to be brave.


I went to the cooked chicken tree and kicked it for a while. I call it that ’cause it’s rotting and when you kick at it the chunks come off like a quarter chicken dinner. Branches and bushes were scratching my ankles; my army pants are too short now because of puberty and my long socks were in the wash. Close to the blueberry patch, I started to smell something strong and different. I heard cracking sticks or something larger. All of a sudden I was a dog. I was sniffing everything and getting closer to where the smell was coming from. Soon enough I could see smoke, even though I was a dog and eyesight is my weakest sense, I couldn’t help but see smoke was everywhere. I leaped over branches with my nose in the air. I ran and ran towards Mrs. Williams’s cabin, using my tail for balance.


When I first saw the fire spilling out a window I wasn’t a dog anymore. I waited at my usual stump, watching the flames curve out from the far side and up onto the roof. They were mean and roaring and quickly ripping through the wall of the house. I smelled roast beef — which I thought was strange — then I remembered Mrs. Williams.


This was the first time in my whole life I went into the clearing, stepping from outside of the forest. I got as close as I could and looked into one of the windows where the fire hadn’t reached yet. I could see now that it was the kitchen that was burning up, but closer to me was the living room. There she was, lying on the couch.


I paused from my story and looked at the secret agent.

Don’t tell Mom this part, ok? I said.

Ok, he said.

I mean it, I said, I know I’m a kid but don’t be tricky.

Scouts’ honour, he said. At that moment I knew he was true.


I ran in the door and over to Mrs. Williams. The smoke was so thick I coughed and my head felt wobbly straight away. The side of my face nearest to the kitchen was burning hot. I squinted my eyes and found her body laying still. I tried to lift her but she was heavy, she’s a small woman but still a grown-up. I’m sure she had rocks in her pockets. I grabbed her wrists and dragged her off the couch, across the living room and out of the door getting her dress dirty on the ashes that had blown over. I was walking backwards which was pretty tough. When we were on the grass I fell back coughing. I lay there listening to the crackle of the wood breaking up.


Mrs. Williams was not moving, but I could see her chest go up and down. It was just a matter of time before she woke up again. Then I got nervous; I wouldn’t know what to say when she woke up. I’d never talked to her. I thought maybe she will be hungry, so I grabbed the two hot dogs from my pocket. They would taste better roasted of course but I didn’t have time. Mrs. Williams gasped and propped herself up on her elbows and looked around. She saw me, and then turned her head to the burning house.


I looked back at her. I should have told her that I had hot dogs if she was hungry. She got to her feet with tears in her eyes and ran back into the house, closing the door behind her. I looked through the window but there was so much smoke I couldn’t see anything. I heard her coughing but then it stopped. I didn’t know what to do. I had seen a beetle once walk straight into a campfire — no survival instincts — but she was better than a beetle. It started to get really hot so I held the hot dogs tight ran with one in each hand. I used the path for the first time, taking the road all the way into town. Behind me I could hear a crash, wood snapping and the tin roof shaking like thunder as it fell.


When I got into town I went straight to the comic shop because Burt, the owner, is the only one there I can talk to.

Hey nature boy, Burt said.

Cut it out, I said.

Why do you have hot dogs in your hands? he said.

Because Mrs. Williams’s house is on fire, I said.

Stop making things up, he said.

I yelled to him that it was true. For the first time he brought himself from the colourful pages to really look at me. I was covered in smoke. He ran to the telephone and called the police. I ate the hot dog in my left hand while I waited for them to show up. It was still a little bit frozen. I was still hungry but saved the second one for Mrs. Williams. Then you came in, Mr. FBI.


The agent looked scared like a kid.

I know you don’t believe me, I said. It’s ok, people never believe me, I said. Then his phone rang and he got up, pacing around. He had given me a blanket but I brushed it off. I wasn’t cold, if anything I was boiling. He lowered his head and hung up the phone. He came back over and sat beside me, putting his hand on my shoulder.

He offered me a ride home. I said no thanks, I knew how to get back on my own.

No, he said, I want to take you. I could only see some of the sky through the window of the backseat. I ate the second hot dog.


Author Photo charlotteCHARLOTTE VAN RYN studied International Development at the University of King’s College in Halifax, NS. She attended the University of Ghana and worked in Accra for the Poetry Foundation of Ghana. She has been a tree planter, a photographer, a butcher’s assistant and a canoe trip leader. Charlotte currently lives in Toronto where her first novel, Pike, is in the editing process with the support of David Adams Richards through the Humber School for Writers and her partner, poet James Southcott.