“We owe it to our children. We have to be able to do hard things. Whatever it takes.”
Daphne first notices the mothers in the woods on a Thursday morning, after she has dropped her daughter off at preschool and loaded up the baby in the stroller for a walk. The woods is technically a city park, though there is no playground equipment, only walking trails that cut through and loop around it. Today there is a whole group of women—mothers and their children—gathered under one of the big trees on the outskirts of the woods, the pretty one where people pose for family photos. The mothers wear their babies in slings strapped to their chests, though many of them also have bigger, wilder children darting around too: jumping off the tree’s low-hanging branches, jumping from crack to crack on the sidewalk, perching on the bench at the edge of the woods and then jumping off it. Daphne pushes the stroller into the street so no one accidentally jumps onto her baby.
She considers asking them what they are doing there. But as she gets closer, she grows nervous. She decides she will smile and wave. But before she can, the woman with the curly hair waves her over and says, “Hey! Come on!” Then she raises her fingers to her lips and whistles, and everyone starts moving toward the woods without breaking conversation or having to wrangle anyone—they move together reflexively.
Daphne pushes her stroller off the sidewalk and into the grass, the wheels creating rivulets in the long blades and weeds. No one else has a stroller. Instead, they are all wearing their children, even the larger toddlers, on their bodies in slings, or their kids are walking beside them. She follows them down the path that creates a loop around the inner perimeter of the woods, but then they veer onto a narrower trail that cuts through the center.
This part is always a bit muddier, the ground a bit more uneven, but it eventually culminates in a familiar opening that Daphne assumes is the dead center of the park, like a bull’s-eye. The first time Daphne and Amelia discovered this area, with the circle of trees surrounding it and several large rocks like chairs for sitting on, Amelia called it “the living room of the woods.” There’s even a fallen tree that stretches from one side of the clearing to the other, like a couch, Amelia said. I could live here, she sighed. But it doesn’t feel particularly cozy to Daphne. It seems isolated, so much farther from their home than it really is, and there’s even something a little pagan about it.
It’s here the moms stop. Daphne has often worried about going off the trail because there could be snakes or poison ivy, but everyone settles in; some of the women spread out blankets atop the fallen leaves and place their babies on them, and others sit directly on the ground. Daphne stands near the trail, one hand on the handlebar of the stroller. As if sensing that the other babies have more freedom than he does, Tucker begins to cry, straining against the straps and buckle of the stroller. A few of the moms turn around to look at Daphne and Tucker, and though they smile sympathetically, they watchher until she feels pressured to take him out. So she does, and the women wave at him as he tries to squirm out of Daphne’s arms. They say hello, laughing at his attempt to escape.
“How old is he?” asks one of the moms from her blanket. She has her breast out and nurses ababy smaller, balder, quieter than Tucker. Tucker plops himself down on a pile of leaves and digs through them. “Yeaf,” he says.
“Thirteen months,” Daphne says. She notices a pigtailed girl shows a berryto her mother, who nods and squeezes her shoulder, as the girl places it into a Tupperwarecontainer. She notices the other kids are doing the same: picking up berries, examining them, discarding or keeping them.
“He’s darling,” the other mother says.
“Thank you,” says Daphne, still watching. One mother appears to be building a trap. “I’m sorry. What exactly is this group?”
“Oh,” says a mother in surprise, sticking her finger into the baby’s mouth to unlatch him from her breast. “We’re survivalists.”
They are, according to Rowen, the curly-haired mother of twin boys and the de facto leader, technically a neighborhood Women’s Association. They began as a small playgroup several years ago, just four moms and their babies, and expanded into a very large group comprised of moms belonging to several nearby neighborhoods. Then following some irreconcilable differences, the group splintered into two factions: “One group interested in brunching,” Rowen says to Daphne, “and one interested in living.” The mothers in the woods represent the latter of the groups. They moved to this park, dedicating two hours once a week to learning important survival skills. “Just in case the worst ever happens,” Rowen explains. “We owe it to our children. We have to be able to do hard things. Whatever it takes.”
“So she is building a trap,” Daphne says, pointing to the mother kneeling on the ground.
Rowen laughs. “Yes. You can too, though my recommendation is start small. Basically learn the easiest ways not to die. Work your way up to the harder things.”
Daphne looks down at Tucker, who has abandoned the leaf pile and tours the clearing, stopping at clusters of mothers and children to say hello, like a little woodland politician. “Not dying sounds good,” Daphne says.
“We do normal stuff too,” Rowen says. “We trade recipes and set up playdates. Our kids know how to identify poisonous berries and where to find groundwater, but they’re just like any other kids. We try to shield them from the more frightening aspects of survival.”
“Of course,” says Daphne, wondering what “more frightening” means to Rowen. She watches Rowen’s boys argue over a long bow, one tugging at the bowstring and the other at the wooden handle. One of the boys also has an arrow clutched in his fist, the tip pointed up at the cathedral of tree branches overhead. “Ah,” says Daphne, gesturing toward them.
“Oh, fuck,” says Rowen. “They’re going to kill someone one day.”
“Well, someday it might come down to kill or be killed,” jokes Daphne.
“You aren’t wrong about that,” says Rowen, and she runs over to the boys, calling their names, putting a gentle hand on each of their heads, looking very much like a normal mother.
That night, she tells Bradley about the mothers. She isn’t sure how she wants him to react, to laugh with her or to encourage her to join them. “The Women’s Association?” he says. “But they’re preppers?”
“I guess, kind of,” Daphne says. “Survivalists.”
“What do they think is coming?” Bradley asks. “The apocalypse?” He motions toward the window, where outside it is dark and raining, a good storm with thunder and sheets of water, the kind they rarely get here.
Before they left the clearing this morning, Rowen whistled again to get everyone’s attention, pointed to the pieces of sky through the thick canopy of trees, and said, “It’s going to rain tonight. Can you feel how the wind is moving from the east?” The women, even Daphne, nodded.
“They just want to be prepared. It’s like the Boy Scouts. Or Girl Scouts,” she says. “Mom Scouts. Did you ever do that?”
Bradley laughs. “The Mom Scouts? Never.”
Daphne rolls her eyes. “You know,” she says, “if something bad really did happen, and we had to live off the land, we’d die right away.”
“I wouldn’t,” Bradley says. “I actually was a Boy Scout. But I get your point. I can see how it mightbe helpful to know how to identify poisonous things or whatever. I bet Tucker will be the kind of kid who is always eating weird shit. He’s got that look about him.”
“He kind of does,” Daphne says. She goes outside to collect the mail from their covered front porch and watchesthe rain for a few minutes before Bradley comes to join her.
“It’s really coming down,” he says. “Think your new friends know what to do in case of a flood?”
“I feel positive they do,” she says.
In their bedroom, Daphne puts the monitor on her nightstand, clicks it on so she can see Tucker sleeping in his crib, his bottom in the air. There is thunder in the distance, and Daphne tenses for a moment, bracing herself for the faint boom to wake him up, but he only shifts. Daphne listens to the storm. It might rain all night and into the morning; while they sleep, the streets might fill up, lightning could strike the trees, knock the power out, cast everything into darkness. And what then?
Daphne signs Tucker up for a baby music class on Tuesdays. They grocery shop Wednesdays. Thursdays, though, are reserved for the Women’s Association in the woods. She does not bring her stroller again. Another mom, Kaley, lends Daphne one of those baby wraps that’s just one long, wide piece of fabric, and she teaches Daphne how to wrap Tucker in it, strapping him against her body. At first, it feels like a straitjacket that is somehow both too constricting and too loose, but then one day, Tucker falls asleep in the wrap, his cheek pressed against her shoulder, and she wants to bind the wrap and her son to her body forever. While he sleeps, Rowen teaches Daphne how to create a rope from pliant branches.
“It’s so nice to have your hands free,” Rowen says in a hushed voice so she doesn’t wake Tucker. “And the wrap is more efficient. Just strap that baby on yourself and go. And really, if you think about it, a stroller just isn’t built for the worst-case scenario or for evacuating quickly.”
“What about older kids?” Daphne asks. “What do you do with them?”
“Teach them to run fast,” Rowen says.
The Women’s Association has a group text named WA with three leaf emojis on either side of the letters, and when Daphne joins, she is pleased to see it isn’t all wilderness tips. They text each other while they watch The Bachelor. They send selfies of themselves with spit-up or circles of leaking breast milk on their shirts. They discuss which PBS cartoon child is the worst. When one of their husbands or their kids is being shitty, they make jokes about running off to a women-only homestead.
Sometimes, late at night, a mother will send a sad text about her loneliness, her low sex drive, the cutting remark her husband made, the fear and anxiety that comes with being a mother.Miraculously, someone always seems to be awake to respond.
Other times, a mother will send a news article, accompanied by no words or explanation, the headline providing information enough: “Wildfires Rip Through Wine Country”; “Brain-Eating Amoeba Found in Water Supply in East Texas”; “North Korea Test Launches Missile.” Daphne does not share these with Bradley, who she does not think would understand, would not see that the subtext of these messages is so clearly: This is why we do what we do.
One week, Rowen brings a cooler full of dead squirrels. The women squirm, but when Rowen explains they would need to learn how to skin and prepare a small creature for food if necessary, they each obediently sit on rocks or the forest floor and make small talk as they slit open the squirrels’ stomachs. Daphne can’t believe she does it, but afterward she feels strangely proud.
Then there are the chickens Rowen brings one day. They run frantically through the clearing, pecking at the leaves on the ground, the children chasing behind. The rule, Rowan says, is if a child catches one, his mother kills it. Tucker follows one around but doesn’t nab it. The girl who does cries at the sight of the chicken in her mother’s hands, and finally Rowen gently takes the chicken and gives it to Daphne. For some reason, it seems like bad luck for two women in a row to refuse to kill the chicken, so Daphne takes its neck in her hands, its feathers surprisingly spikey and its talons scrabbling in the empty air, and she does it—she breaks its neck. “Good girl,” Rowen marvels. For the rest of the day, as she washes dishes, changes diapers, brushes her daughter’s hair, Daphne, too, marvels at her hands, at the secret thing they could do.
The other moms don’t think she’s overreacting. Daphne knows if she showed them pictures of women weeping beside the swirl and suck of wet mud, they would nod and say yes, the world is a frightening place, but we aren’t completely powerless. This is no time to panic. We will simply do what needs to be done.
Rowen has been encouraging Daphne to bring Amelia for a few weeks, and yesterday in the group text, Rowen seemed uncharacteristically exuberant. “It’s going to be a BIG DAY,” she wrote. Daphne wasn’t sure what she was talking about, so she simply sent a little heart and decided that it would be a good day to bring Amelia.
The other moms don’t think she’s overreacting.
But now Rowen is conspicuously absent, though the twins are here. Kaley whistles and rounds everyone up. Amelia falls in with Rowen’s boys and darts ahead, then, as they approach the clearing, comes running back toward her mother. “There’s a table!” she says. “Just like in a real house!” Then she scampers off again, disappearing around a bend in the woods. Through gaps in the trees, Daphne catches a flash of Amelia’s golden hair.
“A table?” Daphne asks Kaley. Tucker is on Daphne’s back in the wrap today, her first time to carry him like this, and he grabs Daphne’s ponytail and pulls. Daphne tries to reach up and stop him, but, sadly, her arms don’t bend that way, and she is forced to endure the intermittent pull and release of her hair.
“I’m not totally sure,” Kaley says, but she says it without looking at Daphne.
When they get to the clearing, Daphne sees what Amelia means. It isn’t a real table, not like they have in their dining room, but it is table-like: a great, flat gray stone propped up on two other stones. The kids are gathered around it, jostling each other in excitement, the mothers standing a few feet behind them, making small talk. It reminds Daphne of a children’s birthday party, the moment when the cake is about to come out, all the anticipation, the end of all the day’s momentum. Amelia walks over to the stone with a handful of leaves and dumps them on the surface. “Lunchtime!” she says, picking one up and pretending to take a bite.
“What’s it for?” Daphne asks.
“We need a flat surface,” Kaley says. “I’ll be right back.” She hurries toward her daughter but then only stands there, and Daphne wonders if she was just trying to get away.
Daphne walks over to where Amelia is serving lunch on the table. “Dessert, Mommy?” Amelia asks, holding up a twig.
“Thanks,” Daphne says. She takes it, but Tucker reaches over her shoulder, grabs it from her hand. One of Rowen’s twins climbs up on the table and jumps off, landing in a crouch like a wild animal. He snarls and pounces. Another mother who is not Rowen grabs him before he runs off and scolds him. “That is not what this is for, mister,” she says. Daphne looks around. Where is Rowen?
“Tucker stole your dessert, Mommy!” Amelia squeals. “It’s a cookie, Tuck. So delicious.”
“Don’t tell him that!” Daphne says. “He’ll try to eat it.” From behind her back, Tucker giggles.
But Daphne is distracted—something in the clearing feels off. She looks more closely at the other mothers, and she sees that though they are smiling, it is a brittle, artificial kind of happiness: some are fidgety; others stand at a rigid kind of attention. Meanwhile, the kids seem more manic than usual, unfocused without any of their usual traps or snares or baskets. Where are all those things? And none of the mothers have spread out blankets; there are no babies toddling around. Like Daphne, those with little ones are wearing them strapped to themselves. Everyone appears to be waiting.
Daphne hears the crunching of leaves underfoot and the familiar low murmur of people moving furniture into a new house: short, practical directions, warnings not to trip, a request to hang on and adjust. Rowen and two other mothers come into view, carrying something long and heavy and unwieldy. Everyone looks toward them, and Daphne expects the other mothers to rush toward the women to help them with whatever it is they are carrying, but no one does. A few curious children move in their direction, and their mothers place a restraining hand on their shoulders. One boy runs toward the women as they walk toward the clearing. “What is it?” he asks. His mother is one of the women carrying the strange load, and she says sharply, “Can someone get him, please?” Kaley jogs over to the boy and leads him back to the table.
As the mothers near, Daphne sees that Rowen’s face is red with exertion, and a piece of her hair sticks to the sweat on her cheek; Daphne feels a strange and tender desire to brush the curl back, tuck it behind her ear, as a mother would. But Rowen is not someone who needs mothering. Even now, Daphne notices the power in her body, each muscle built to endure, and admires it. She doesn’t know that she will ever possess that kind of strength.
They are almost to the table when one of the mothers helping carry the bag trips on the arch of a tree root rising from the ground. She loses her grip on the bag, and it hits the ground with a dull thud. No one moves or speaks, but the mother looks at Rowen with wide, panicked eyes. Rowen stares back. A muffled moan, deep and ghostly, rises, and Daphne stiffens. The fallen mother hurries to pick up her end again, but the bag snags on the tree root, and as she pulls it up, there is the sound of ripping fabric.
Daphne hears Amelia call to her. She’s going to shush her, but then Amelia says, “He’s eating the stick! I think he already ate part of it!”
Suddenly, Daphne can feel Tucker coughing on her back, his body shuddering, a rasping sound cutting the silence of the clearing. “Oh, shit,” Daphne says, trying to reach him. “I can’t get him!” She frantically tries to untangle him from the wrap, until another pair of hands comes up beside her and lifts the baby out. Daphne takes him in her arms and pounds at his back, then digs in his mouth the way you’re never supposed to do with a choking hazard, and then pounds again. Finally, something flies out. He begins to wail, and Amelia also begins to cry, and it suddenly feels unbearable to be here with these women and their children and the suffocating trees and this stone table and whatever is (moaning again, awake now, straining) in the long black bag being placed upon its surface.
The wrap flapping loose on her body, Daphne somehow swings Amelia onto her back and carries Tucker in front of her. They run from the clearing, down the trail. Briefly, Daphne hears Rowen and the mothers calling her name, but no one comes after her, and so she doesn’t stop running until she’s out of the shade of the woods and into the sun.
She decides not to tell Bradley about the stick incident. When she spoons macaroni and cheese on Amelia’s plate at dinner, she leans down and whispers in her ear, promises ice cream if Amelia doesn’t tell Daddy about the woods. “Nothing about it,” she says. Amelia nods and is true to her word.
Daphne and Bradley eat ice cream too once the kids have gone to bed. Daphne holds the bowl in one hand and the remote in the other, scrolling through Netflix. “Hey,” says Bradley, reading something on his phone. “They found more bodies in Utah. Hikers in the slot canyon. Rangers just now found them.”
“Why would you tell me that?” Daphne asks.
“I thought you were interested,” Bradley says, surprised. “You wanted to talk about it the other night.”
“Well, I don’t now,” she says and starts to cry.
“Oh, God, no, I’m sorry,” says Bradley. “I’m an idiot. Do you want more ice cream? Do you want me to sleep outside? Launch myself into outer space?”
“I want to watch TV,” she says.
“Sure,” Bradley says.
Silently, Daphne points the remote at the TV and chooses a baking show. For the rest of the night, she half expects to get a message from the WA group text, but her phone never makes a sound, and she knows she will not hear from them again.
The next Thursday, Daphne and Tucker stroll to the woods. It is 9:35. She thinks of the first morning Amelia went to preschool, the anticipation and the giddy anxiety of being alone with her son. How drawn she had been to the mothers in the woods that day, and later how capable and hopeful they made her feel. They had been her friends, hadn’t they? But now here she is alone, again, with Tucker, who also makes her feel hopeful and occasionally capable but doesn’t make her feel less lonely. They go in through the usual entrance the Women’s Association takes, and though Daphne does a lap around the outermost loop, she knows that eventually she will head toward the clearing. She goes slowly, feeling like she is looking for something, though she isn’t sure what. When she gets to the clearing, she already knows they will not be there.
When she gets to the clearing, she already knows they will not be there.
The stone table remains, and she strolls Tucker over to it. Straining against the straps of his seat, he reaches for the table, and Daphne angles him so that he cannot touch it. She walks around the table. For a table in the woods, it is nearly spotless, as if someone has cleaned it with a wet cloth or perhaps a diaper wipe, but there are a few dark spots near one corner, little splatters the reddish-brown color of rust.
Daphne and Tucker leave the clearing.
Amelia goes back to preschool. On Thursday mornings, instead of going to the woods, Daphne and Tucker attend a baby gymnastics class. He enjoys being flipped and held upside down, and Daphne makes friends with a nice mom who often wears shirts extolling the merits of coffee and wine. Daphne tries not to judge her for the shirts, though sometimes it is hard.
One day as they arrive at baby gymnastics, she is positive she sees Kaley in the parking lot. It has been months since the mothers left the woods—Daphne hasn’t seen any of them, hasn’t heard anything about them. Once, late at night, she posted a question on Nextdoor asking if anyone knew what happened to the mothers who met in the woods. “I think they were a wilderness group,” she wrote, but no one responded.
She watches Kaley place her umbrella stroller in the trunk of her SUV. With one hand she presses the button to close the trunk and in the other she holds her phone. Daphne thinks about texting her. “Kaley!” she calls. The woman looks up, appears to see no one, checks her phone again, and gets in her car.
Later that day, Daphne loads Tucker into the stroller and gives Amelia a Ziploc bag for collecting pretty leaves and rocks, and they head for the woods. They enter at the usual trailhead and wind through the shade. Amelia announces that she is an explorer. “Lead the way, kid,” Daphne says, enjoying her daughter’s imagination and her bouncy run until it becomes obvious they are heading toward the clearing.
“Let’s go back,” Daphne calls, but Amelia runs ahead, disappearing momentarily from sight. Daphne calls her name and starts pushing the stroller faster, navigating the bumps of tree roots and rocks. She thinks of Rowen. How fast can you really go with a stroller? But then Amelia darts back again. “You can’t run away like that,” Daphne says. She glances at the Ziplock bag in her daughter’s hand. There is a new addition to the leaves and sticks, something black. “What’d you find, honey?”
“Mom,” Amelia says breathlessly, “there’s a table!”
Daphne stares at her. “A table,” she says.
“Come see!” Amelia says, handing her mother the baggie and running away. Daphne pushes the stroller down the path into the clearing, where the stone table, now covered with leaves and acorns and twigs, waits. She opens up Amelia’s bag and pulls out the black shape. It’s a piece of nylon fabric, torn from something larger.
“Amelia,” Daphne says. “Let’s go.” She feels strangely sick, her head light and her stomach heavy.
“Lunchtime!” Amelia sings. She picks up a leaf from the surface of the table and pretends to nibble it. Tucker whines in his stroller, until Amelia unlatches his buckle, and he slides out. Daphne goes to grab him, but he moves fast, straight to the table. He climbs up on top.
“This is like the living room of the woods,” Amelia says. She hands a stick to Daphne, who does not take it. “Dessert, Mommy?”
“No, honey,” Daphne says. “Don’t you remember coming here?”
“Oh, look who wants it!” Amelia says. “Tucker stole your dessert, Mommy. It’s a cookie, Tuck. So delicious!”
“No!” Daphne says again, yanking the stick from Tucker, who is still on the table and now begins to cry. He sits down angrily. “Amelia, come on, we’re going.”
“Poor Tucker,” Amelia says. “We have no food! I guess I will just have to eat this baby!” She lunges for Tucker, who, tears still glistening in his eyes, now begins to giggle, and she takes his chubby leg in her hand and puts her mouth on it, nibbling and biting until Tucker is hysterical with laughter, until it is hard to tell if he is happy or being driven mad.
“Wait,” Daphne says. “Do you hear that?” The sound of leaves underfoot. Voices, she thinks. Someone walking toward them. But then those small noises are drowned out by Tucker’s wailing on the stone table, and it is all Daphne can hear.