Notes from Ninja Camp
by Peter Bognanni
The week begins when the Huey hovers over Base Camp, and we see the pagoda sitting just under the crest of a jagged mountain. There it is: paint-stripped. Lawn un-mowed. Gnarly-ass boulders in the yard. Here we are, says one of the pilots, Take a good look, boys. He points down. Wow, I think. And I donít mean it in a good way. The whole setup looks like some shitty Epcot pavilion, but worse somehow, because itís supposed to be the real deal. Everyone on the helicopter realizes at once that this was a poor choice for a corporate retreat.
Layne, my seatmate on the Huey, has tears in his eyes when he sees Base Camp. Actual tears. I havenít seen him around the office before, but I talk with him as we descend the rope ladder that hangs from the copter. We sway and bob as we speak, dangling hundreds of feet from the earth like tiny spiders in the gray sky. Turns out his wife forced him to go on the retreat. She thinks it might put him in line for a promotion, maybe put the lead back in his pencil too. Yikes, I think. Layne has a pencil. When we get toward the midpoint of the ladder, Layne looses his footing and almost knocks us to our respective deaths. Retreat hasnít even started and weíre almost toast. Not good.
Ė Sorry, says Layne.
Ė Donít worry about it, I say.
We all take the orientation hard. Our boss, McMichael is there with the Ninjas, and he lays into us with these sayings as weíre beaten with bow staffs. I was in the first Gulf War so I can handle this kind of thing, but Layne seems to be in a different kind of hurt entirely. Theyíre really slamming him with these bow-staffs. ďFEAR is a four-letter word!Ē goes McMichael. Whack-a-whack! Whack-a-whack! Afterward weíre rewarded with some tepid Swiss Miss and sent to bed.
††††††††††† Ė Christ, Layne, I say that night, why donít you say youíre sick or something? This doesnít seem like your scene, pal.
††††††††††† But heís just kind of sobbing into his Ninja Mat at this point. Iím not sure if he hears me. Anyway, I can tell even after the bow-staff battering, heís made up his mind to stick it out. What other option does he have? McMichael runs the whole I.T. department.
††††††††††† He stops crying for a moment.
††††††††††† ≠Ė Why are you here? he asks
††††††††††† Ė Character-building, I guess, I say. Leadership skills?
††††††††††† Layne nods. Despite the bruises from orientation, we sleep like sandbags.
††††††††††† Things can only get better, I think.
††††††††††† Next day though: more beatings.
††††††††††† We meet the Master after a short breakfast of pine nuts and kelp. The Masterís name is Shadow-Force, and he says our bodies need to be like bricks so our minds can be like mortar. I donít really understand him, but McMichael is nodding so I nod too. Right away he marches us out on to the summit of the mountain, and all these little guys in skeleton masks drop from the trees and kick the shit out of us. Iím talking like twenty punches before you even know youíre being hit. Plus the staffs again. Layne starts moaning right away. And instead of helping him out, Shadow Force makes him an example. He jiggles Layneís man-breasts while McMichael talks about accountability and asks how can we have an IT team that only cares about comfort?
††††††††††† That night, I wander over to his mat again.
††††††††††† Ė Layne, you got to get out of here, I say. Theyíre singling you out. This isnít worth it.
††††††††††† Ė Sheís with him right now, he says, I can feel it.
I donít know what he means, so I just pat him on the back.
††††††††††† Ė You ever walked in on your wife while sheís getting it from your cousin? he asks.
††††††††††† Ė No, I say, which is the truth.
††††††††††† There is silence. Then Layne gets a nosebleed.
††††††††††† Day 2: No flogging in the morning. But instead, weíre abandoned in the middle of nowhere in our tighty-whities. Weíre given knives and hats for the sun, but thatís it. Itís frigid, and the Ninjas leave with McMichael in the heated van, kicking gravel at us with the tires. Around noon, I find a stream and spear a skinny fish, which I share with Layne, who loses his knife like fifteen minutes into the thing.
††††††††††† Ė What did you want to be when you were little? Layne says, spitting out a scale. Heís slumped against a boulder, looking ten kinds of pathetic.
††††††††††† Ė Donít know, I say, an astronaut.
††††††††††† Then Layne laughs really hard for way too long. So long that I get scared and pretend Iím hunting for other fish, but really Iím just avoiding Layne, whose laugh turns to weeping for awhile and then back to laughing. He stops when the Ninjas arrive eight hours later and one of them punches him in the solar plexus.
††††††††††† This time, Layne comes to my mat at night.
††††††††††† Ė Hey, he says.
††††††††††† Ė Yeah, I say.
††††††††††† ĖI think Iím going to die here. I had a dream.
††††††††††† Ė No, I say.
††††††††††† Ė I donít know, he says.
††††††††††† Then Layne bends down so close to me, I can smell the powdered milk rations on his breath.
††††††††††† He whispers: Can I just lie next to you for a second?
††††††††††† Ė Iím not sure thatís such a hot idea, Layne, I whisper back.
††††††††††† Ė Yeah, youíre right, he says. Forget it.
††††††††††† In the middle of the night, one of the other campers puts a bar of soap in his ass. I feel terrible, but I canít defend him. I have my job to think of.
††††††††††† Thank Christ we get to the weapons the next day. Around nine a.m. itís throwing stars, and I get the hang of it quick. I drop a jackrabbit from fifty yards. Shadow-Force comes by and gives me this giant turkey drumstick for a reward. Weíve basically been living on berries and lichen so it tastes like gristly sunshine in my mouth. Turns out itís poisoned though, and Iím losing my soul on the pagoda toilet for the rest of the afternoon. Shadow-Force says itís a lesson in humility, which seems to be a theme around Ninja Camp. When I feel better, I look for Layne, but no one can find him.
††††††††††† Days 4 and 5 there are no beatings. But, there is some torture around lunchtime. Mild electrical shocks to the genitals in unpredictable bursts. The less we scream the less McMichael writes in his ledger. I get three marks. Pretty good.
Luckily, by evening of Day 5 we are handling swords. Finally. Christ. I have a spar match with a Programmer from the sixth floor and I slice a piece of his nose off. But itís cool. Ninja code of honor shit. We shake hands, and Shadow-Force comes by with another drumstick. I toss it in the trash. This one was not poisoned, says Shadow-Force. Another lesson in humility.
††††††††††† That night, I swear I can hear Layneís crying coming from outside the pagoda, but on closer inspection there is nothing there.
††††††††††† Ė Layne! I scream into the night.
††††††††††† A camper threatens me with ass-soap, though, so I knock it off.
††††††††††† Second to last day, I start to understand everything. Stop thinking, I say to myself, and end your problems. I am holding a rapier. I have spent the morning learning to wield it. I forget who I am and stab at things. Trees. Mountain Goats. I hide in the bushes for three hours, trying to be completely silent, then I scare the shit out of a groundskeeper.
††††††††††† At lunch, the guys in masks jump out of the trees again, but this time, I defend my self and hold three of them off with nun-chucks and a hilted dagger. Shadow-Force takes me aside and asks me how would I like to perform my skills for the whole group that night. McMichael is there, beaming. I am honored. My heart is as open as the sky, I tell him. He laughs, and squeezes my testicles.
††††††††††† Later when it gets dark, we have a bonfire. Shadow-Force brings out some turnip wine and we all get a little crocked. McMichael even talks about something else besides I.T. Things are nice. Tomorrow we go home.
But just when everything is perfect we hear this cry from the forest nearby that sounds like itís coming from a vulture or a jackal. Everyone turns, and here comes Layne, barreling down the hill toward the bonfire. Heís dressed in rags and he looks like he hasnít eaten for days. A womanís name is written on his forehead in blood, and heís holding some kind of homemade spear. As he approaches we realize, he isnít joking. The Ninjas are drunk, so they donít get up in time. Layne ululates, and lofts the spear and guts one of them. Wow, I think. Okay, Layne.
††††††††††† But this is not improvement. Layne has lost it. He jumps into the fire next, until all his rags are burning, then he pulls the spear out of the wounded Ninja and chases that that programmer from six with it.
††††††††††† Ė Layne, I say, Itís okay, buddy. Tomorrow you go home, man.
††††††††††† But I can tell Sixth Floor is going to die if I donít act. So I pick up my rapier and catch him. I knock the spear from his hand. He is feral. Burning.
††††††††††† Shadow-Force appears behind me. McMichael is jogging behind him.
††††††††††† Ė Finish him, says McMichael, I smell a new regional supervisor.
††††††††††† Ė This isnít what I signed up for, I say.
††††††††††† Ė Do it! says Shadow-Force, Weakness will not be tolerated.
††††††††††† All across the mountains I hear the sounds of the natural world. My ears are hyper-attuned. Bats. Rushing springs. Snapping twigs.
I think: This place has made me a Ninja.
I am holding my rapier above Layneís white neck.
††††††††††††† Ė Are you hurt, Layne? I ask. Hey Layne!
††††††††††††† He doesnít answer. A breeze kicks up and I can smell his burnt hair and his forest body odor.
††††††††††††† I think: Are we really going home tomorrow?
††††††††††††† I raise my rapier.
††††††††††† †I donít think.
Peter Bognanni is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. These days he lives in Chicago where he teaches people subject/verb agreement.