A breeze shyly nudged my tent flap open and a tiny band of sun hit my face. I squinted my eyes, stretched every muscle, and burrowed a little deeper into my sleeping bag.
Save for that single slice of sunlight, my shelter was a black canvas cave perched on top of a wooden pallet floor. This was maybe a semi-permanent camp, but the guests were all transient. The only sign of our forebears seemed to be the markings covering the floor. The handcarved etchings and pen scratch weren’t the snarled graffiti of juvenile angst—they were mostly inspiring quotes and bits of verse. I noted a few of them:
“The price of our vitality is the sum of our fears.”
“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”
“‘Changing the world’ isn’t enough. Forget it exists and make something totally new.”
This place was so foreign and yet I felt so at home. I’d felt warmly welcomed at the campfire last night. The singing, the stories, the laughter. After a long restful night in my cozy tent, I was refreshed and invigorated for a new day. (Is today the day I got to head out into the wilderness with this amazing group of people and find my wildling?)
The air was fresh and clean, my head was clear, and I’d been catching glimpses of my wildling in my imagination. Seemed like it wasn’t heading in a straight path. It kept circling back to the valley beyond the ridge, almost like it was waiting for me.
I still wasn’t sure how I was going to find my wildling. My foot was feeling better, but I still had no supplies and no map. But the fact that my wildling was not getting farther and farther away gave me hope.
I realized I was starving. As I left my tent, I noticed other travelers in the same hungry predicament. I spotted a couple individuals and small groups of people headed toward the large open-air tent on the other side of the campsite. I headed over and walked to the back of a line that was forming.
As I was waiting, two people joined me in line. I did a double-take.
“Mel! What?!” I cried out.
It was my friend from the stage, from before I released my gift and chased after the wildling! I pulled them into a warm hug and then stepped back.
“I was so worried about you. I started chasing the creature from the fire, and when I turned around, you were gone! But you’re here! Did you let go of your gift? Did you see your wildling, too?”
“Wow, I wondered if you would be here!” Mel said. “I was really hoping you would be. When you ran off, I was so terrified of releasing my gift, but I finally did it. I so desperately wanted to see where you’d gone.”
“Oh—sorry, do you know Dex?” Mel gestured to a woman who stood with them.
“No, we’ve never met. Hello!” I said.
Dex greeted me, and I realized we were at the front of the line.
A long-haired man with an apron stood behind the counter and smiled broadly. I recognized him as the barista who had surprised me by serving a late-night coffee after campfire. Wasn’t his name Martin? “M—” something. (Matthew?) Well, whatever his name was, I was amazed to get a perfect cortado in the middle of nowhere. (Maybe it was Martin.)
He stood behind a high table filled with different food options. So not only was (Mario? Melvin?) a wilderness barista, it appeared he was also the camp chef.
“We’re running low on hash browns,” he announced to the line. (Murdock?) “We ended up burning the first batch, so take it easy on the portion sizes today.”
I chose a grapefruit and some toast as I continued the conversation with Dex and Mel. I noticed Dex heaping not one, not two, but three large scoops of hash browns onto her plate. Thoughtfully, I made my way toward an empty picnic table. Mel and Dex followed and took a seat opposite.
“So how do you feel about the camp so far, Dex?” I asked.
“I really like it. Just got in this morning, actually. I know this whole thing is a bit of a trip, but I had the most surreal experience. Out in the woods, I heard this music, walked through a clearing to find where it was coming from, and pretty soon I found myself having a conversation with the voice of the world itself. I was there talking with the world for quite a while, so it took me a little longer to get here.”
“Oh yeah?” I said, “I met the world yesterday, too. Kind of freaked me out though with its talk about eating me like a croissant! But I realized it isn’t really going to eat me—it’s just a metaphor or something for how desperately the world needs me.”
“Yes!” Dex looked at you with enthusiastic eyes wide. “And isn’t it so great to be needed? The world needs us so much. And when we work together with the world, it feels so good.”
“It really does,” I agreed. “And you can see the land spring to life, blooming all around.”
Dex smiled wide. “So you’ve seen that, too? It’s amazing isn’t it?”
Mel looked uncomfortable. “But Rosin warned me about those holes,” they said. “Aren’t they dangerous?”
“I never really understood her concern,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong: Rosin seems great, but the world did say she’s a little old-school. Seems to me her perspective encourages people to be a little self-centered and sort of ignore the needs of the world.”
“Really?” Mel’s brows furrowed. “She seems pretty generous to me. This camp—”
“This camp seems focused on indoctrinating us with a worldview that ignores the needs of the world that surround us,” Dex interrupted forcefully. “Rosin says she’ll help us find our wildling, but the world told me it can help us find it in a way that doesn’t drive us crazy chasing its whims and predilections. And it can help us tame our wildling. This camp is really nice, but it’s a distraction.”
“She—the camp—it’s—I mean…” Mel stuttered a half-hearted response, eyes bouncing to and fro, stuck mentally processing. Then after a pause: “What do you think?” Mel asked me.
“I really don’t know what to think, Mel,” I said. “I’m here and I’m taking it all in. But Rosin definitely doesn’t have my trust. She wasn’t exactly forthcoming with me; she straight up refused to answer my questions about the holes when I pressed her. And come to think of it, I still don’t know whether I should actually expect to be eaten by a wolfgoat or not.”
Dex piled on. “You’ve seen the evidence: when you give the world what it needs, it blooms to life right before you. Who can refute that? I have to believe we can trust the voice of the world.”
“That’s not the voice of the world,” said someone behind you.
All three of you startled. Rosin was now standing directly over your table.
“That’s the voice of a needwell,” Rosin said sternly to Dex. “And, no, you absolutely can’t trust what it has to say. It doesn’t care about you—it just wants you. It wants to use you up and destroy your wildling.”
I looked respectfully at Rosin and nodded, really hoping she didn’t hear what I had said. I might not have been sure if I could fully trust everything she had to say, but I really wanted her to like me.
“Sounds like it’s your word against the world.” Dex said, laughing. “I sure wouldn’t want those odds.”
I gulped. Soooo it would seem Dex didn’t have the same people-pleasing nature I did.
“Dex,” Rosin’s voice was surprisingly patient. “You can make your own choices. I can’t tell you what to do or who to believe. You are welcome in this camp, regardless.”
Rosin turned to Mel and I. “Stay on the trails and steer clear of the needwells, okay?”
I nodded. Dex kept her mouth shut. I looked at Mel, who was deep in their head, staring off in the mid-distance.