From Homesteader Wolf to Public School Boy

An excerpt from STAY AND FIGHT by Madeline ffitch, recommended by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum


Fierce, heartfelt, and urgently imagined, Madeline ffitch’s Stay and Fight offers the gift that I always hope for when reading fiction: the gift of “What if?” Namely, what if I had chosen a way of life different from my own? Not somewhat different, but wildly different. Like, what if I was living off the land? What if I was acting in defiance of the system? What if I was raising a family outside of modern society and its distortions? Questions that I find myself asking ever more often these days. As the horrors of late capitalism become harder to ignore, the choice to live in radical opposition seems increasingly sensible to me. My current gestures feel meager: the hybrid car, the metal straws, the attempts to limit my kid’s screen time and sugar intake. The yearly march, the occasional online donations. I’m at risk of becoming cynical about my own half measures. What would it be like to live a life comprised of choices less comfortable and complicit than mine have been?

ffitch’s novel provides an answer, an answer so complex that it takes four powerful voices—each in its own way sharp and hilarious—to tell it. There’s Helen, a college-educated transplant from Seattle, honing her survival skills on her newly purchased tract of land in Appalachian Ohio; Lily, softhearted and yielding, a local, deeply in love with Karen; and Karen, a gruff nurse at the community clinic who’s torn between being a lone wolf and wanting a pack. Together, these three women build a home off the grid in which to raise Lily and Karen’s son, Perley. 

The following excerpt marks the thrilling first appearance of Perley’s narration in the novel, and his voice is maybe the most indelible and endearing of them all. Seven years into this experiment, Perley takes stock of his situation and decides that he wants to go to school. Thus his mothers run up against the limits of living on their own terms; the cost of their self-sufficiency is Perley’s loneliness. His initial encounter with “civilization” turns out to be, as one might expect, brutal, yet it leaves him brimming with insights, observations, and a precious, newfound sense of privacy. The experience is undeniably harsh—this chapter offers an unsparing look at conformity and rigidity within the educational system—but in Perley’s voice it’s also much more nuanced and funny and surprising than just that. Political critique is made richly human and particular in ffitch’s fearless book, which is exactly why I love it and why it feels so necessary right now.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
Author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles 

From Homesteader Wolf to Public School Boy

An excerpt from Stay and Fight
by Madeline ffitch


The snake has strong beliefs. The snake has strong beliefs about territory my Mama K said when the snake began to sleep with us in our bed. We tried to ignore him, at least I think it was a him. He wasn’t the biting kind, but he had a piss flinty smell which was hard for Mama L to sleep through. The snake considers our home to be its home. Who will say whose home it is? It’s the same with the wasps. We let them nest up there in the rafters they are a bunch of grapes. They sometimes lose their grip and drop onto the sofa like anyone would. They sting you if you sit on them like anyone would. Who will say that this is their fault? What would you do if you were a wasp?

Most of the people I know are women except for the snake and me, we are boys. A small boy, Mama K said, he’s small for his age so we can get rid of Rudy’s friggin shirts. Which we didn’t. When my age was five I stopped nursing. When my age was six I climbed the tree and shook the acorns down onto the blue tarp. When my age was seven the yellow bus rumbled by on the road each day, passed right by the bottom of our drive- way, but I didn’t get on it. The thing about me that isn’t like other kids at the IGA or the gas station or down along the road is that I am the only male in the vicinity and I have an extra mom. And I have a Mean Aunt who isn’t fun or anything my Mama K says she’s bitchy and she knows everything. They aren’t like a lot of people but they are mine. My women are always working and I am always working.

This is what we do, me and my women. We hunt in the woods. We gather plants. We fry grubs in a skillet. We roll the dice. We know how to fight. We drill our reflexes. We practice lying down on the ground and then getting up really fast. We practice throwing spears and shooting arrows into bales of straw. Sometimes we get really hungry and then we make a big stew that is dark green and then we get our bellies full of iron my Mean Aunt says. When it is time to kill the ducks, we kill them and eat them, even the extremely cute one named Brownie Starlight. I named him that. We don’t cry.

In the evenings in the summer and also when it rains and also when it snows I build a fire that my Mama K showed me how to build log-cabin- style, little stuff then medium stuff then big stuff then the bow drill. I blow on it so the Smoke Witch dies and the Fire Fairy comes out, and then we sit with our stew and Mama K asks for my report and then she whit- tles with her sheep-killing knife and I demonstrate everything I know how to do: bowline, klemheist, one-handed push-up, pickle a bean, cure a potato, process a hickory nut, four-strand braid.

A wizard chiseled from the very stone holding a crystal ball that is for sale at the gas station is what I’m not allowed to have. Also cereal from the IGA. Also anything from the mall on the way to the feed store. Also TV, sugar, and a dirt bike like the kids along the road. What I am al- lowed to have is lip gloss that came in the mail for the Mean Aunt that looks like you’re supposed to eat it but don’t eat it. What I am allowed to have is as many blackberries as I can pick, venison jerky, ElfQuest, and chocolate-chip pancakes secretly. What I am allowed to have is as many pet snakes as I want. That is what Mama L says even though I know she doesn’t like the snakes. She says that because she doesn’t want me to be afraid, but why would I be afraid? Mama K says the snakes aren’t pets, they are wild. She says they are wild and I am wild. What does it mean to be wild? I asked, and she said, It means that you can make yourself invisible. When you are in the woods, no one can see you.

That’s true. For example the mowed head kid along the road. I hid behind a sycamore and watched him catch the yellow bus and I knew the bus was going to school because the Mean Aunt told me. Were we alike or not alike? Was he real or was I real? We both had like a ton of freckles and winter-grass kind of hair I mean yellowish nothing color but mine kept falling into my eyes and someone had driven over his head with a tractor. The Mean Aunt saw me behind the sycamore and said, Don’t worry about that kid, Perley. Trust me, Perley, you are the lucky one. But what’s the point of being the lucky one if all those other unlucky kids along the road have each other and you have no one and are skinny and small and can’t even have a chiseled wizard? The mowed head way looked pretty good. The mowed head way was to eat Twinkies and black cherry soda pop and to ride on a dirt bike which Mama L said was too dangerous. The mowed head way was to eat at the DQ on the road into town if there was a four-piece special, and then sit outside in the back of his uncle’s truck. And if there was a wasps’ nest in the mowed head house his dad sprayed it with WD-40 and he had a dad. Also he didn’t use a bow drill but poured gasoline onto his campfire. That’s toxic, said Mama K when I suggested it. Do you want to be toxic? she asked me, even though the answer was obviously hell yes. His dad burned a tire which turned all kinds of colors and his uncle was there with fireworks and his family would, it’s hard to say, just mix more. Like with other people. They knew good songs with music you could move your body to. I thought I could be like that. I watched every day from the woods, skillfully like a Wolfrider with ultimate stealth, but the mowed head kid didn’t see me and the mowed head kid didn’t invite me over. If someone doesn’t invite you over how do you get to go over? You have to go live with them. Or you have to go to school.

If someone doesn’t invite you over how do you get to go over? You have to go live with them. Or you have to go to school.

So I said, I want to go to school.

Mama K said, Christ, who put that into his head, Lily, was it you? And Mama L said, School, my Piglet? Of course you can go to school if that’s what you really want, but you missed kindergarten. I don’t care I want to go to school with the other kids, I said, and the Mean Aunt said, I’m sure he could test into first grade no problem, and Mama K said, He’s not going to school conversation over. And I said, Yes, I am too going to school. I’m going to go down there and get on that bus tomorrow and go where it takes me. And Mama K said, Oh, you are, are you? And Mama L said, My Perley, are you sure? And Mama K said, You know what they have at school? Useless bullshit brainwashing is what, and the Mean Aunt said, You know what they have at school? Other kids is what. Mama K said, You stay out of this you aren’t his parent, and the Mean Aunt said, It’s actually really problematic not to let Perley go to school. You see how he watches the neighbor kids, he hides behind the trees and spies on them it’s not healthy, and Mama L said, Perley, you should go play with those kids, you don’t have to go to school to do that, just go say hello, I’m sure they’ll love you as much as I do. Mama K said, Who cares about other kids? There’s more important things. I care about other kids, I said. I want to mix more. Mix more? said Mama L. Come here and give a cuddle and a nose kiss, and I said, No, and hid behind the sofa with the black snake who looked at me with silver eyes and who sent me this message, Stay true, Perley, stay true. The Mean Aunt said, What’s going to happen is that he’s going to be fixated on school the more you won’t let him go there. You should probably just let him go to school and get it out of his system. And Mama L said, I think that if Perley really wants to go to school it should be his decision. Mama K said, Of course you do, Lily. You always think that Perley should get whatever he wants. But he’s not going to school.

Mama L went down to enroll me and she stopped at the gas station on the way home to buy me school supplies which were a notebook and a pack of pencils but not the chiseled wizard even though I begged. Maybe for your birthday, Mike said. Maybe, Mama L said.

Then it was the first day, and I opened my eyes and looked through the crack in the wall to the light out in the woods, and I felt the snake at my belly uncoil. I sat up and the snake slid down into the wall. During breakfast Mama L cried, My Velvet Piglet, and Mama K sharpened my pencils with her whittling knife and she said, Oh, now you’re crying, Lily? Well, just remember I didn’t think he should go in the first place, and I said, Mama K? and she said, What, Perley? What is it now? And I knelt down as Strongbow would and I said, Don’t worry, I am prepared. You have trained me well. I will honor your training. I will return this evening and I will be ready to give you my report. She said, Get up. Let’s just hope your report is that you don’t want to go back to that horrible place, and she gave me my pencils. The Mean Aunt looked at the clock and said, If he’s going, he’d better go, and Mama K said, I can’t believe any son of mine wants, actually wants, to go to school, and Mama L lay on the sofa and wiped her eyes and the Mean Aunt took me by the hand and led me down to the bus stop so I wouldn’t miss the bus.

In my lunch box there was a jar of pemmican packed in tallow and there was a jar of milk and there was a can of sardines with the tab I could pull and Mama L had put a square of chocolate in there, too, even though Mama K didn’t know. The Mean Aunt marched me down the hill and pulled out some yarrow as she passed it. She chewed it furiously and gave me a fistful. Chew on this it has superpower, she said. It will shoot juice into your brain that will make you so brave. It’s like she didn’t even no- tice that I was already brave. I was going to school which is where the other kids were. So I pulled my hand out of the Mean Aunt’s hand just as we got to the roadside where the mowed head kid stood waiting for the bus. His eyes were crusty and he was eating something from a piece of cellophane with a cool animal on it in sunglasses. He looked at me real quick but then he looked away again and the yellow bus pulled up so that the sun went dark and I didn’t wave goodbye to the Mean Aunt. I threw back my shoulders and I walked to the door of the bus and then I turned to the Mean Aunt, and I put my fist to my heart the way that a Wolfrider would, a noble salute of undying gratitude and respect.

On the bus everyone was laughing, and I loved laughing. It was one of my favorite things to do so I started laughing, too, except then I thought maybe we weren’t laughing at the same thing exactly because the bus was full of kids, which was toxically cool, but they were all making the same sort of salute I had made to the Mean Aunt, the noble salute I gave so that the Mean Aunt would tell Mama K that I was steadfast and resolute. No one had ever laughed when I did the salute before. But when I saw all the kids on the bus doing the salute, I knew that it was funny. In fact, it was the funniest thing anyone had ever done and I was the one who did it.

I sat down next to the mowed head kid and the girl in the seat behind us put her fist on her heart and said, Hey, Bexley, aren’t you going to say hi to your new friend? So then I knew the mowed head’s name so I said, Hello, Bexley, I am Perley. We could be new friends.

Could be but ain’t, he said. I’ve seen you. I’ve seen you, too, I said.

Shut up, he said. You wouldn’t hide like that behind the sycamores with your mouth hanging open unless you were touched, is what my uncle said.

I am an elfin spy with optimum fighting skills, I said. Part wolf. Maybe you are, too.

I am an elfin spy with optimum fighting skills, I said. Part wolf. Maybe you are, too.

You’re touched, he said. Or you’re a baby. That’s how come you need a grown-up to take you to the bus. He pointed out the window at the Mean Aunt, who stood scowling at the bus as it pulled away but that was just her face. Is that your mom or is that your dad I can’t tell, said Bexley. The girl behind us laughed so I was helpful and said, Actually I don’t have a dad that’s my aunt.

You know what that makes you? said the girl. That makes you a bastard.

I don’t think so, I said.

Yes, it sure does, said Bexley.

I have two moms and one mean aunt, I said.

Two moms? the girl asked, and I said, Yeah, Mama L and Mama K.

That makes you a faggot bastard, Bexley said. And I didn’t know what either of those things meant because they weren’t in ElfQuest, and they weren’t in The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening by J. I. Rodale and Staff, 1970 edition, and my women had never mentioned them to me. I didn’t know what they meant, but I knew I would have to remain extremely vigilant at school to find out.

It’s a good thing I was prepared. It’s a good thing I was ready for anything. It’s a good thing I remained steadfast and resolute. Because even after the bus stopped and I went into my classroom things didn’t turn out the way I had imagined them. I was highly skilled, my training was top- notch, and I thought that would make the other kids like me, but I didn’t get a chance to show them how prepared I was or how much I had practiced. When do I get a chance to make my report? I asked the teacher, who was a grown woman like a box of tissue at the IGA, that beautiful. I almost touched her, but I remembered Mama K had said, Don’t touch anything, Perley, just don’t. So I held my hands to my sides, and the teacher said, Your report? And I said, When do we show our skills? And she said, Right now is the time to show your skill on the tablet. Which is one thing I knew about because the elves had tablets, too, they were made out of stone. The teacher said, Class, it’s time for Specials and from now on we are going to do our Specials on our tablets. It’s an initiative, it’s an initiative that each Appalachian child gets a tablet. Carved from the very stone, I said. No, you faggot bastard, said Bexley, but really quiet so the teacher didn’t hear. She passed around books that weren’t books and each and everyone else got started but I just waited for the tablet. Perley, you’ve got to turn on the tablet so that you can do your Specials, she said. Oh yes, I said, and that’s how I knew that the book was a tablet not an elf tablet a school tablet it was made of plastic. It was like what my women had but bigger, a phone with a screen that they had to walk up to the top of the ridge to get reception, and they wouldn’t let me touch it because they said it would rot my ear.

I love tablets, I said. That’s good, Perley, said the teacher. Plastic is my favorite material, I said. So you should turn it on and get started, she said. That’s okay, I just love to hold it, I said. But you’ve got to do the work, Perley, she said. You’ve got to do your Specials. I just stroked the tablet like it was a baby wolf and she said, Perley, the other children are getting started, what is the trouble? Nothing, I said. Fucking hillbilly, said Bexley, but still so quiet it was almost like he was sending to me with his mind like an elf would even though I was beginning to realize that there was no way Bexley could be an elf, or at least not a valiant one, definitely not a Wolfrider.

The teacher leaned down and pressed a button on the back of my tab- let and the screen glowed up at me like opening a magic vault. There, she said. Thank you, I said. I love this. I love this tablet. Good, she said. I’ll let you get started. She left me alone. I looked at the tablet. But I didn’t know what I was seeing because I was a total fucking hillbilly. All the other kids were quiet, staring into the light and using highly skilled fin- ger actions, but when I looked at mine, all the light from the vault went so fast that I didn’t know where to look, and I didn’t know where to put my hands. I knew how to read but it’s like I forgot I knew how to read. So even though I loved the tablet, and even though plastic was my favorite material, I took a break and looked out the window for a minute. Just to check if I was missing anything out there, and I soon saw Leetah and Cutter through the oaks at the edge of the playground and they were riding on Nightrunner, the noble old wolf. Nearby were their children, Suntop and Ember, tumbling around with Choplicker, who was still only a pup.

They were calling to me and I had to go. Also my leg had a cramp it felt like it was flexing itself. I’d never been inside for so long unless it was a total friggin blizzard. I stood up. Perley, what is it? asked the teacher. I knew that she wouldn’t understand. She wouldn’t understand that when- ever I saw the wolves with their elfin riders I had to drop whatever it was I was doing and see how close I could get to them before they disappeared. I had to get close to them because one day they might carry me off and there was no way that I was going to miss that. I have to go to the bath- room, I said. It was my first lie. At home I told the truth and then watched my women fight it out. But I could tell school was different. Optimum strategy was called for, like when the elves match wits with the trolls. It didn’t matter if I lied or not. What mattered is if I made it through. So the teacher gave me a hall pass which said hall pass and was a laminated piece of construction paper with some yarn on it.

I took the hall pass and I didn’t go to the bathroom I went out to the playground but by the time I made it outside Cutter and Leetah were gone, and the wolves were gone, so I undid my pants and peed in a bush. Then I looked up at the school and Bexley was looking back at me through the open window and then the nice teacher’s head appeared above his mowed head and then she came outside and took me by the arm to the principal’s office.

Perley, said the principal. Sir, I said. You’ve just joined us, he said. Yes, sir, I said. This is your first day, he said. Yes, sir, I said. Don’t call me sir, he said. Call me Mr. Anderson. Yes, sir, I said. He won’t focus, said my nice teacher. He can’t focus on the tablet. We’re doing Specials and he won’t do it. He went outside without permission. Think of the trouble I could get in. Also another child said he peed in the bushes not that I encourage tattletales. The principal was a good man I mean he was a good big man I mean his belly was big he was like a balloon with the nicest wig on top. The teacher said, I have twenty-five other kids to look after, and he said, Go, Ms. Carroll, go on I’ll take it from here. When she left he smiled sadly at me and I smiled sadly back at him and I had never smiled sadly before, not like that, and it felt good, almost as good as being an animal wearing sunglasses on some cellophane. Perley, the principal said, we can’t have kids wander away what if you were hit by a car or a stranger kidnapped you, think what would happen to us here at this school think about it we are responsible for you. I thought about it. I smiled sadly. You have to focus, he said. You have to do what the teacher says. Don’t you want to do your Specials? I said, Yes, sir, of course, sir. And he said, Why did you go outside without permission? And I said, My body did it my body went outside without permission, and he said, That is unacceptable, and I said, Yes, sir. And he said, Did you pee in the bushes you can tell me. And I said, The Best Practices Binder says, Don’t pee in the bucket. Pee on a tree but instead I peed on a bush. I waited for the principal’s sad smile to turn to a sad smile of understanding, but it didn’t. Instead he asked, Don’t you have a toilet at home, Perley? And I waited ten seconds. I waited exactly ten seconds I know because I counted and I looked out the window behind the principal and I saw that Nightrunner the wolf had come back and was winking his green eyes at me from behind the oak tree. I wanted to make the principal happy so I said, Yes, sir, you should see our toilet it has one of those automatic flushers with a flashing light, it’s even more powerful than the one at the IGA. Which was my second lie.

I said, My body did it my body went outside without permission, and he said, That is unacceptable, and I said, Yes, sir.

I thought the principal was going to make me do like fifty push-ups or run laps or something where I could show my physical strength and endurance, but the principal just sighed and wrote something on a piece of paper and then he said, This is an adjustment period, Perley. You’ll soon understand how things work around here. Remember our motto here is excellence.

He sent me back to my classroom but by that time Specials were over for the day and anyway no one cared about the skills I had and I could hardly even remember what they were because there was no place to try them out because we were always inside except for half an hour at recess. And later, when we opened our lunch boxes I realized that sardines were the funniest thing a person could eat. They were the funniest thing a person could eat and I was eating them and everyone was laughing.

I knew what my women would say, they’d say, Fuck Bexley, don’t say fuck, and Mama K would point out all the reasons Bexley could never be a Wolfrider and was totally not noble. But they hadn’t seen him mix. It was like Bexley built the school himself he was that easy inside it. He was like Winnowill, who was evil but was also beautiful and in charge. I wanted to know if Bexley’s way could be my way. So I threw my hilarious lunch in the garbage and I stood against the chain-link fence and I watched.

Bexley and the other kids did everything like they’d always known how to do it, like they’d known how to do it even when they didn’t exist yet, even when they were just an energetic force in the universe which is what Mama L said I was before I was born. Even then, they were an energetic force that knew all about tablets and Specials and kickball and shoes that flickered and animals wearing sunglasses, and they had bubble gum instead of yarrow and they knew what was funny and what wasn’t funny and they knew why.

They knew what was funny and what wasn’t funny and they knew why.

And I saw that even though it seemed like all the other kids were one way and I was the other way, actually there were some other kids that were also the other way. For example, there was this one kid, a chubby kid, he was in the second grade, but the other second-graders avoided him, and this kid had round glasses and brown skin and curly hair that floated around his head, like only a few of the other kids at school did, like what the Mean Aunt said about Mike at the gas station, He is an oppressed minority, and Mama K said, Why don’t you say that to his face? and Mama L said, Love sees no color, and the Mean Aunt and Mama K laughed meanly at her. But what I really noticed about this kid is that he wore red rubber rain boots even though it was definitely not raining and this kid collected acorns.

I watched him skirt the perimeter of the playground. He walked beneath the oak trees at the edge of the wood chips and he picked up a few acorns at a time and he put them in a pouch he made by tying the front of his T-shirt in a knot. No one else looked at him they just barreled past him screaming and throwing the kickball onto the roof of the school. No one else looked at him but I looked at him and then I followed him.

He took his acorns around the corner of the school building, behind the blue dumpster where there was an oak tree whose roots were tearing up the pavement. He checked to see if anyone was watching, so I hid behind the dumpster and he knelt down by the tree and then I saw that he had dug out under one of the roots and untied his T-shirt so that the acorns fell into the cave he had made there and he must have had hundreds stored away. I wanted to help him so bad so I sent to him with my mind like an elf or like a wolf but he didn’t hear me so I stepped out from behind the dumpster and I said, We could do that together I am pretty good at collecting acorns I actually do it pretty much all the time with my Mean Aunt, but he said, Back off I have all the help I need, which was weird because he didn’t have any help he was doing it all by himself. Which I told him and I said the Mean Aunt is toxic at acorns and I am toxic at acorns. Actually I’m part wolf. He said, Back off faggot bastard.

I backed off. But my motto was excellence. I stayed resolute and steadfast and I played a game with myself where I was his wolf acorn guard. I stood against the chain-link fence and made sure that no other faggot bastards tried to help him. And none did.

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